[this post originally appeared on my Huffington Post blog – 2 May]
You may have seen recent news that Amazon has launched a new and improved Echo device called the Echo Look. Thanks to its built-in camera, one of the first ‘practical applications’ for the enhanced device is the ability for users to keep a visual record of what they wear and subsequently receive feedback and suggestions via the ‘Style Check’ feature.
Style Check uses algorithms combined with feedback from real stylists to help you decide what to wear. Of course Amazon’s fashion business is growing rapidly and the company has been candid about the fact that Style Check will offer brand suggestions and the ability to shop looks.
While you may be left scratching your head wondering whether one really needs a cylinder-shaped device to give fashion advice, that’s the wrong question to ask yourself. In fact, the feature itself is not unique. Soliciting feedback from a community of stylists and/or layering in algorithmically-suggested items is something currently being done via a number of fashion apps on mobile. I’ve written just recently about a company I advise, called Style Counsel, that gives women the chance to get real-time feedback from a wide community of users and stylists; and before that about the WantList which users visual recognition technology and machine learning to suggest clothing.
So, that said, here IS the question you should be asking… what are you giving up versus getting from the wave of virtual assistants on the market, not to mention fitness trackers, voice-search, apps with swipe features and so on? As the options grow we are increasingly participating in the largest ever human experiment and the implications are weighty. Let’s call it ‘the age of the guinea pig’… everything you do digitally is slowly contributing to the collection and processing of data that will increasingly be used to create ‘superhuman’ intelligence.
No need to ditch the devices and hide in a bunker just yet. There is no doubt that these devices and their applications can help make our lives easier and even arguably may contribute to the greater good someday. Finding the ‘patterns’ in how we live and behave, and what we like helps us find and discover products more easily; even better is that this technology can go as far as detecting disease and help those who are impaired. For now, though, it’s important to understand the part you play in this grand superhuman plan.
Few questions answered…
What are algorithms? What is machine learning? Bantered around a lot but perhaps not always well understood by consumers, algorithms are mathematical formulas for solving problems; and machine learning is when computers can start to recognise patterns in data without having to be programmed. So, with Style Check for instance, all of the data around what you wear, what you buy, what people ‘like you’ wear, and so on, creates patterns that contribute to what feedback is served up to you. More interesting is that how you interact with this data (yes, you like it, no, you don’t, yes you’ll buy) makes it smarter.
While overall not new, what is different today is the breadth of big data available (thanks to these new devices and their applications); adoption by consumers (the more data the smarter the algorithms); and the practical ability to apply mathematical calculations to larger sets of data and faster.
This is the mechanics by which Artificial Intelligence is built – one behaviour or choice at a time, billions of times over, processed, analysed and repeated.
What should I consider? You should think about the implications for your privacy. There is nothing wrong with your data being collected to create applications that you’ll find useful. But knowledge is wisdom and the more you understand and control what you are giving up, the better.
For instance, devices with cameras can capture a lot of additional ‘data’ – how your home is decorated, what else you buy, etc. So the key is to be very aware. Turn off devices when you don’t need them; understand that you are being ‘watched’ when they are on; know what you are giving up by getting what you want. It’s also important to consider how you interpret and consume the suggestions that are sent back to you. In the case of Style Check, surely you would not want to let algorithmic suggestions cause you to lose your confidence, personal style and creativity.
In the end, this is where it all gets a bit philosophical, do you want to be like everyone else? Do you want to offload your decision making onto machines and treat personal considerations as math? Are we okay getting a bit lazy? What are the ethical considerations? Where does empathy and other human traits fit in?
The truth is we don’t know what the future holds, but as we all participate in this great experiment, let’s just know what is at stake.