Blockchain, AI, AR, VR et al. for the rest of us

Decoding the Silicon Valley buzzwords from a retail perspective (Part I/III)

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These jazzy jargons and astounding acronyms can be baffling for the most of us, with “experts” being a rare breed. While mere fuzzwords a few years ago, some of these technologies have made serious advancement in the more recent times. An overdose of ‘rise and fall of bitcoin’ articles, my recent AR experiences while shopping for a sectional, and the deluge of chatbots intermediating my every interaction from seeking advice on which hair-color to buy to booking my next waxing appointment to speaking to my healthcare provider, had me convinced that these technologies are more a part of our day-to-day lives than we realize or recognize.

With this piqued interest and questions aplenty about the possibilities tech. can spell for my world (retail that is), I registered myself for San Francisco Fashion Week and Technology panel discussion. Of course fashion weeks in SF are ought to be laced with the local flavours of the Bay as the creatives shared the spotlight with the world’s best techies (arguably).

Four stalwarts, spearheading Blockchain, AR, VR and AI were seated on their high-chairs, engaged in a pre-game banter as I walked into a room filled with mixed scents from the many perfumes of the fashionistas and the pizzas kept at the back (the second best scent in the world if you ask me, after petrichor!). I was pleasantly surprised to see some of the more fashionable people of the West Coast (a rare sight believe me and a welcome break from the usual jeans-tee culture), all gathered in a room.

While each one of these technologies deserves a 6-pager each (yes, I am an ex-Amazonian) and not that they don’t already exist, I will be splitting this post in three to offer ample justice to the knowledge-laden four hours as I share my version of the ‘vision’ that each of these technologies has painted for me while limiting theory to the minimum, as I attempt to stay true to the spirit of this blogpost.

What is Blockchain and how can retail adopt it?

Of the four technologies, this is probably the most camouflaged and the least ‘in your face’ innovation. Popular as the internet 3.0 (as we move from static web pages to dynamic user-generated content and social media, to now unmediated connective intelligence), blockchain bases itself on the very fabric that internet works on and promises to decentralize the information and remove the intermediaries, as it quietly works towards making web a more trusting and democratic place. So far, Blockchain has been synonymous with crypto-currencies (with Bitcoin as its poster child), but that is just one of the facets of this data structure. It reaches far beyond, as other platforms and forms of communication are being constructed.

If this doesn’t help, I am going to quote the most popular layman definition available that definitely helped me understand it — think about a Blockchain as a distributed ledger that maintains a shared list of records (transactions or other things of value). This helps to 1. encrypt your information 2. distribute it across multiple databases making it more secure, and 3. make it publically available and hence verifiable and trustworthy without needing a third party (barring private blockchains).

Retail Applications

With this basic understanding in place, let’s discuss a few retail applications that might help us envision the potential use cases:

i) Think about the Amazon reorder button sticking on your refrigerator. What blockchain could potentially enable for a connected home is for you to authorize machines for such activities on your behalf without needing that button. Imagine your refrigerators, ovens and washing machines having that feature in-built so they are self sustaining without you having to spend your time of the day on such activities, improving your quality of life. Imagine spending your Sunday laying astride in the city park finishing your current read instead of spending two hours on the Costco trip. (more of an iOT example than Blockchain admittedly)

ii) Think open marketplaces with peer-to-peer transactions taking place freely without anyone having to pay a transaction fee or needing a mediating platform at all. Think an open e-bay, an open Uber, an open Airbnb with one party paying the other via a Blockchain version of PayPal, fueling the sharing economy.

iii) Think Blockchain as a way for supply chain auditing, creating a way for you to trust and validate the ecology and sustainability claims of the brands out there. Since the information is decentralised and easily verifiable, no-one can meddle with that data or cheat or lie. That means a less corrupt social order so you can self-select into the cause that you care about and only wear things that restore the environment and support businesses that are paying a fair wage to their workers.

iv) On similar tones of transparency, Blockchain can help you identify other retail claims. For example, did LeBron James really wear that shirt as the re-seller claims and if yes, what should the ideal re-sale value be? Gotta make sure you are not taken for a ride, right!

v) Think about identity management and KYC processing - distributed ledgers splitting your age, D.O.B., gender, address, phone number information and offering a secure way of identity verification on a need to know basis.

vi) Think more Amazon Go-like models with you walking out like a shoplifter and face & biometric recognition billing you in your wake with a crypto-exchange happening at the back-end — an experience devoid of any friction whatsoever! Such things might soon become the norm in the world of offline retail.

vii) Deviating from retail for a minute, how medicine is practiced is rapidly changing due to the recent advances in the ability to map out human genetic make up (what is now called as precision medicine). This has given doctors the ability to treat ailments (eg. different types of cancers) in ways very different to what was practiced for decades. Now doctors are able to treat patients based on an individual’s unique genetic make up. This personalised treatment is much more effective with lesser side effects and better recovery time. This also reduces the cost of treatment. But this new and better method of analysis of human chromosome raises a few issues - large amount of data needs to be generated, transferred and kept confidential. Blockchain offers a solution to this problem.

So that’s my short and sweet take on Blockchain. Stay tuned for AI, AR and VR.


P.S. Feel free to Google the immutability factor, the network effect, digital tokens, private blockchains and other such concepts. DM me and I’ll be happy to share my favorite articles and resources on the topic.


Originally published at on January 20, 2019.

Product Philomath | Retail nerd | Problem solving wizard | Fashion aficionado | Pizza connoisseur | Ex - Amazon, Myntra, Tommy Hilfiger, Levi’s

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