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My Innovation Radar for 2018 — Part 1, The Weak Singularity

As I did mid-year 2017, I will start today a discussion on what I have on my innovation radar. This is what I believe will shape both B2B and B2C markets for the next two to three years. Unlike last year, I will split it up in six parts to avoid getting in another mega-article! But very much just like last year, I won’t go for the easy answers and discuss artificial intelligence, virtual reality or self-driving cars. So that may be a good reason to read on. : )

1. The Weak Singularity

The singularity is the idea that when we’ll have connected enough computing power, there will be a moment where AIs will start to reprogram themselves rapidly and become self-sufficient if not self-aware (think Skynet).

That might be science fiction or not, but what I’m interested in is a « weaker » version of it: 

The weak singularity is the idea that the flocks of connected devices that we surround ourselves with (mobiles, street cameras, weather sensors… cars tomorrow) are starting to aggregate as a global sensor network connected to a just few central cloud platforms.  

These last ten years we were all enthralled by the idea of the internet of things: a decentralized network of connected devices that we could all address through their individual IP.

What I’m talking about is just the opposite: 

The IoT proponents sold us the idea that we will be able to poke our fridge from work to check if we had any beer left for when we’ll get back home. What we are starting to get is a point where Amazon will be able to poke all the fridges in a given area to check how many tons of beer they need to resupply their local warehouse with. 

That’s the weak singularity idea: the creation of a global network of devices coming together in service of just a few. 

If you want to dive deeper in this shift you might want to read more about the developments in edge computing (how cloud operators start to offload some processing power locally and how they use that to further extend their reach). 

Why is it important to understand this trend now? 

The part where only a few operators will be able to use this network at scale is beyond worrying. The GAFAs or BATXs are now old companies and they constantly reboot our strategy for more reach and more pervasiveness. Every device is now a part of a massive battlefield. And to some extent you’d be right to dismiss Cortana, Alexa or Siri as low-added value services (the term ‘gadget’ comes to mind) but they are just sampling and structuring this new reality. 

Think automotive. Imagine the moment when 5% of the cars in the US are networked together (maybe not yet for self-driving purpose, but at least for traffic management and accident avoidance). Who is now in control of this market? Companies building the cars? Cities? Highway operators? Or the three platforms that will organize the networking platform and the algorithms they’ll run?

Think about China. All many years (months?) before they really connect together billions of phones and computers, governmental social scoring and facial recognition cameras in cities? Add drones in the mix and you get quite an Orwellian dystopia. Of course you also can count on Google or Facebook to try their best in the West, or to still be used in that way by other third-parties.

But for now, whether you are in retail, fresh products, automotive, urban planning,  energy, or any other market you’re depending more and more on a few cloud solutions. Most of them are moving fast to this ‘weak singularity’. What it means for your business is that you could be mistaken and think these platforms could be robust suppliers or partners (if you can’t beat them, join them!).

You’d be mistaken not to take into account the radical selfishness they need to achieve to sustain their vision. 

What to look for in the next months?

If you start to look at all global platform players as getting to a critical mass of sensors that wrap us around in perpetual data collection mode, you will start to understand more sharply their strategy. While you wonder if Amazon will be profitable doing fresh products, or if Baidu should get in the car business, you should maybe start with this question: how does that contribute to make their sensor network more pervasive and more informative?

This also helps you understand why this is no M in GAFA, or why Apple remarkable stance on privacy de facto put them out of this race.

Next Part… 

The part two of this radar review will be on Platforms’ Dark Patterns which is a trend directly connected to this one and challenging our concept of big data.  

Published by

Philippe Méda

Philippe has been training about 200 startups a year since 2007, consulted for dozens of multinationals on rupture innovation or corporate incubation. He also teaches innovation in key MBA programs in Paris and Shanghai.