Present and future of IoT and AI – Interview for Rethink! Internet of Retail Minds 2017 conference

In September 2017 I attended Rethink! Internet of Retail Minds 2017 conference in Hamburg as a moderator of discussion panel (I will write more on that later). Before the conference I was interviewed about my views on the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence in retail and e-commerce. If you wish to read the interview – click “Continue” below.

we.CONECT: Where do you see IoT and its technologies creating the most impact in the retail industry?

IoT is mostly about gadgets and seamlessly integrating virtuality with real world. That’s why – in my opinion – IoT will create most impact in customer experience. This is especially significant in retail and ecommerce where customers may be able, for example, to try the products before they buy them. This may be especially usable when buying clothes (so customer can virtually try them on) or furniture and appliances (customer would project the product in their home, make a measurements, etc.). Retailers could also track what customers are interested in, for example by following their movement or face expression.

Other field, that may see significant improvement is supply chain management and exposition management – some of such solutions are already introduced by top retailers and ecommerce companies. Smart tags containing information about the product help monitor its movement, track expiry date or help restock shelves. Wearable devices for store or warehouse employees improve the order collection or restocking.

we.CONECT: What do you consider the biggest challenges in your field at the moment when it comes to the adoption of IoT in retail?

Until now, IoT (along with AI, big data, etc.) was a technical novelty, that was mostly used in small scale, as a proof of concept. When products and solutions based on IoT, AI, big data are widely adopted, challenging questions regarding privacy, ethics and legal implications need to be answered. Who is responsible for the decisions made by the artificial intelligence? What should be these decisions? Are we OK with a device listening us at looking at us all the time? Who and how is processing the information collected through these mechanisms? Can we track the customers, their facial expressions or their behaviour?

The list of questions goes on and on, and there seem to be not many answers to them.

The second challenge is that, at the early stage of IoT adoption, when the subject is hot and there’s lots of hype, many of the solutions or products may be a failures, similar to the early days of the web and dotcom bubble. It is very difficult for the businesses and investors to distinguish really innovative technology from well advertised, but not really valuable product.

we.CONECT: How do you see the next 5 years evolving? What role will IoT play?

First of all, in my opinion it’s inevitable, that IoT will take its place in most of the parts of everyday life. We may argue if it will go in one or another direction, but it’s here for good.

For sure, IoT solutions will be cheaper and more accessible. There will be pre-packaged solutions that may be implemented by any business without much technical knowledge – same as now any mom-and-pop business can open it’s own website or online shop. I expect big companies, such as Google or Amazon have leading role in supplying such solutions, and having great impact on IoT adoption in general.

Now IoT is a novelty, but with the time and adoption, customers would get used to it. It will be expected from the retailers and e-retailers to use IoT solutions, and those who will stay behind will face a threat to their market position.

we.CONECT: What are the most critical pieces missing today that will be needed to support this sort of computational ubiquity and at the same time make your customers happy?

We have most of the technology in place, or at least we know in what direction we should go to develop it. There are also lots of new ideas popping all the time.

As I mentioned before, what we are completely missing are the ethical and legal ramifications. It’s very difficult topic, being approached by companies and authorities all around the world now. This is the thing that needs to be sorted out before we really can introduce IoT and AI solutions to the general audience.

One of the interesting experiments in this field is MIT’s “Moral Machine” experiment, which researches, how people wish the autonomous machines should decide in the life-threatening situations. The questions don’t have “good” or “bad” answers and results say, that there’s no universal consensus among respondents.

we.CONECT: Will the IoT enable new business models or new business applications? What do you think – how will they look like?

There’s no doubt that IoT will fulfil one of the main objectives of the retailers and ecommerce businesses: it will make buying very easy, at the fingertips of every customer. It will be even easier than now with mobile applications.

Large spectrum of ideas such as trying the products such as furniture, clothes, car improvements, etc. will create wide pool of business opportunities, especially with companies specializing in providing prepackaged, ready to deploy solutions.

we.CONECT: In your company, how are you implementing or taking advantage of the IoT?

eMAG is a leading ecommerce company in the region of Central and Eastern Europe, but we are also a technology company. We have a clear drive to improve customer experience and also improve our internal processes. We not only use the technology, but we want to create one, having the improvement of people’s lives in mind.

One of the initiatives that fulfills this wish is eMAG Labs – the innovative R&D division of our company. We have a team of people who are equipped with newest technologies and digital products, and who work hard to influence how we and our customers interact with the world. We are working on a solutions including Virtual & Augmented Reality, Chat bots, IoT, Artificial Intelligence and big data. We obtain know-how and create prototypes of solutions that will ultimately bring our customers closer to the products they desire.

Other such initiative is company-wide eMAG Hackathon. This annual international event brings technology and business employees from our technological hubs together to work in 24-hour effort on innovative products and solutions. Every year, winning projects include VR, AR, IoT solutions, or even devices helping people with disabilities.

we.CONECT: What expectations do you have regarding the Rethink! Internet of Retail Minds 2017? Which outcomes and benefits do you expect to gain from the exchange with participating companies?

I am happy to see many big companies from various retail and ecommerce related fields meet in one place for a two days. This is a great opportunity to have a fruitful discussion, especially on the Icebreaker and networking dinner. Challenge your peers are also other great places to openly exchange experiences, ideas and doubts. Some common problems may be approached from different angles, and discussing them may lead to great “a-ha!” moments.

I really like the conference format invented by we.CONECT – it always gives me a lot of new ideas to process and contacts to benefit from in the future.

we.CONECT: Which burning questions or challenges would you like to discuss with the conference community?

I would like – especially during Challenge Your Peers session – discuss the legal and ethical implications of IoT, AI and big data.

we.CONECT: Shout-outs: Any sites/people/articles or books that have inspired you lately?

Iot and related fields are really fluid, new ideas and technologies are appearing and vanishing on a daily basis. Book written yesterday becomes obsolete today, and will be forgotten tomorrow. I like to follow famous Hacker News community which is always up to date with newest developments and ideas.

A piece of popular culture, that paints dark picture of where we could end up if we are not careful with the technology is British TV series “Black Mirror”, which examines unanticipated consequences that we may face in the near future. Watching some of the episodes makes you really think that the “dark future” from the sf movies is just around the corner.

we.CONECT: Thank you!