The case for curiosity — why it’s time to really pay attention to A.I

If 2016 taught us anything, it’s that skimming headlines rarely gives you the full picture. And it taught us that taking time to piece together the full picture can be critical to understanding, to evolution, and to progress.

Artificial Intelligence is ushering in a new era which will have, as its headlines, things like driverless cars, and medical breakthroughs. But it will also have a ‘long read’ just boring enough to ignore, yet just complex enough to be important. So while we’re all resolving to dig deeper into the things that matter, let’s be sure to add this to the list.

Last year opened my eyes to the real potential of A.I, thanks to two clients — Ayuda Heuristics and Graphcore — operating at the cutting edge of this technology. The projects allowed me incredible access to the founders, their teams, their product roadmaps and their advanced knowledge of the field. At times I admit to having felt totally lost and confused — this was hardcore, complex and often theoretical stuff. Building brand strategies for companies in this field has stretched me and challenged me in ways I could not have anticipated, but taking the time to really understand the technology and what it could lead to has also been incredibly exciting and rewarding. Even now, I am still more curious than by any means expert, but it’s a valuable state of mind and one everyone can all benefit from. Perhaps now more than ever.

That said, it made me want to reflect on the real value that being curious, and taking the time to really understand new technology, can have for a business. Curiosity may kill cats, but these two examples from our recent past show curiosity is what keeps companies alive. And being curious about A.I may be what keeps your business, all businesses, alive in the years to come.

Example 1:
How Burberry got curious about social media and re-invented luxury retail

Look at any chart of social media growth between 2006 and today, and you’ll see that the first big uptick occurred around 2010. Facebook and Twitter both saw major growth, with the former reaching a half billion users, and latter gaining +44% of their user base in that one year alone. Instagram came out of beta, quickly surpassing Hipstamatic (a first-to market photo editing app named App of the Year by Apple) and killed it purely by have a social element. This was all largely down to higher processing speeds in smartphones and increasingly ubiquitous wifi which brought more people online and onto social networks.

Burberry got curious about all this in the nick of time, hiring Musa Tariq as their Global Head of Digital Marketing in late 2009. By 2010 he was in fifth gear and busy creating Art of the Trench and live streaming their London Fashion Week catwalk show — making them the first luxury retail brand to take social seriously and do something seriously great. They also drove market share in China with a commitment to Chinese social channels Sina Weibo, Kaixin001, Douban and YouKu. For the company as a whole, these initiatives took the fear out of ‘digital’ and gave them the guts to continue to be experimental and creative. Burberry’s early work in that space put them on the front foot and has more or less kept them there ever since.

Curious about: Social media, mobile technology, internal communication, digital behaviour amongst their target audience, growth markets, re-defining luxury retail.

Rewards: Record revenue, margin and profit, Fast Company ‘Most Innovative’ 2011, 11 million views for Art of the Trench within 9 months.

Example 2:
Walmart got curious about data and out-Amazoned Amazon

Moving forward to 2012, and our relationships with brands had become truly digital as we talked to them (and about them) on social media, signed up to their newsletters, downloaded their apps, and bought more and more stuff from them online. By the end of the year, 24% of 2012’s Black Friday shopping was done online compared to just 6% in 2010.

While most brands concerned themselves with getting up to speed on social and lost their shit about the announcement of Google Glass, others — such as Walmart — focused on something far less sexy: data.

What Walmart realised was that the more people did online, the more data they created. And the more data they created, the better Walmart could understand and predict their customers. And the deeper the understanding and the more accurate the prediction, the better they could sell them stuff. Sorry, I mean ‘meet their needs’.

In 2011, Walmart set up @WalmartLabs with the sole purpose of focusing on the social and mobile data generated around Walmart. By 2012, the team had built a platform that could mine tonnes and tonnes of social data and identify what was important for Walmart to listen to, and what wasn’t. This was one of the first (if not the first) examples of a big brand building a dedicated, brand-led platform for big data. Come 2013, the platform was making correlations between search trends on walmart.com, sales trends in brick-and-mortar stores and social buzz online — plugging them directly into their global customer base and setting them up to continually evolve and improve. The team went on to lead retail firsts in omnichannel logistics, mobile, and open source. In January 2016 WalmartLabs was brought together with Walmart’s store-focused tech group to create Walmart Technology in a landmark step to fully integrate its nearly 12,000 stores with its $13 billion a year e-commerce business.

Curious about: Big data, social analytics, innovation (based on the company’s objectives and capabilities, not trends) .

Rewards: Best overall return in stock performance and dividends in more than a decade. Climbing to №1 on the Fortune 500 list this year.

Curious about Artificial Intelligence?

These two examples aim to show what happens if you get in, understand the big picture, and then build something distinct to your company. They tell the story of two giants who stayed the course by staying curious. But they’re the minority. As we’ve seen, the past ten years has made dinosaurs out of companies who stayed ignorant and failed to adapt to things like social, mobile and ‘big data, and the next ten will claim even more. A.I is the big meteorite, folks and it’s time to decide — mulch or maverick?

Google have bet the farm on it. You can read more about that here (yes, it’s long but come on, you can do this!) Facebook, Apple and Samsung have too. But that doesn’t mean everyone else should roll over and let them get on with it. Far from it. It’s time to dive below the headlines and go deep. It’s time to ask what does this all mean to the future of my business, or the business I work for?

Follow me here and on Twitter for more of what I’m reading and thinking about as I also begin to wrap my head around the bigger picture of A.I. And please do let me know what you’re uncovering too. Meantime, here’s some immediate further reading to get you started…

And please do push the little heart at the bottom to help spread the word and fuel the curiosity. Thank you.