Through an app, darkly

Thomas Kurian (Image: Oracle)

13 October 2017

At the recent Oracle OpenWorld, there were significant announcements that leveraged the great buzz terms of the moment, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).

And in fairness, these were not vapourware or statements of intent, these were concrete, buy them and use them products, with the 18C database being front and centre as the world’s first autonomous database.

However, it was something later in the keynote of the Oracle president for product development, Thomas Kurian, that really took my breath away.

Like the unveiling of a new concept at the Geneva motor show, Kurian, with help of several of his division leads, showed a vision for future business, ecommerce in particular, that goes so far beyond selling stuff, that it took some processing.

“Web activity is monitored, anonymously, click streams are captured in real-time, and recommendations change dynamically.”

In the usual manner of current fashion, a story was wrought to tell the full end to end capabilities of elastic cloud resources supporting intelligent, adaptive applications that can learn and modify their operation to take advantage of intelligence sources to provide not just a superior, but personalised and customised user experience. These are adaptive, intelligent apps for consumer experiences, we are told.

So, we were introduced to Jane, a quite obviously affluent fan of the Huskies (fictional) basketball team who are currently flying high in their competitive environment, and Zach Kodi in particular, a star player.

There is also a host of characters at the ecommerce company behind the experience, led by the inimitable Bob and a host of service leads.

Fan play
The story goes from an immersive fan experience of watching the game with an augmented reality app that provides every conceivable stat to settle those inevitable arguments of MVP (most valuable player), down to his favourite colour and joke. But then, there are also the commercial opportunities for everything from the sub to the app to season tickets and that juicy merchandise.

Jane is soon being targeted with tailored ads via browser pop-ups that appear as she is on her favourite gardening site.

Web activity is monitored, anonymously, click streams are captured in real-time, and recommendations change dynamically. Similar experiences are aggregated to create categories that combine to give an opportunity list. Inferences can be made based on various information sources to offer new options, we are told.

There are also multi-channel engagements, as an offer received on the Web, can be responded to, verbally, via the app chatbot – connected intelligence, they say, described as coordinated outcomes across channels and platforms while retaining context.

The exposition tells us that marketing and advertising data form Oracle’s data cloud, combined with transaction history and machine learning, comes up with customised, personal recommendations.

“We don’t know Jane personally, but we know people like Jane,” says the demonstrator to Kurian.

This is further refined as it sees from these various sources that Jane is going on holidays where it can get a bit rainy, and so a tailored offer for a water proof backpack is now combined with the original, which of course, she cannot resist.

Supply chain
Then, to highlight the IoT and supply chain integration and intelligence aspects, Jane orders customised shoes, as worn by her hero.

She is given an option of expedited delivery, for a fee, in time for her holiday. But some scheduled downtime at a depot has meant that there is a delay. She is notified and offered a later, but still in time for her holiday, delivery with a waved expedited fee. She bravely takes the gamble.

Looking about, it was not hard to tell the Europeans in the audience. They were ones sitting agog at this vision of the future.

Personally, I ranged from ‘I’m not sure about that’ to ‘That’s a bit intrusive!’ to ‘That can’t be legal!’

Then the demo came to the point where they talked about privacy.

Privacy is extremely important to us, said the demo operator. Opt-in is provided via the content provider and opt-out for personalisation, so the user is always on control of their experience.

And then came the bombshell: We adhere to all industry and government standards, such as the Internet Advertising Board and GDPR in Europe.

Now I would not for one minute question this claim, but I would suspect that the last bit of the sentence could easily be extended with “…and GDPR in Europe which would make most of this impossible.”

Comfort levels 
While the level of user experience may be appealing to some, the amount of data gathering, profiling and inference would likely trouble more than just me, and even for the current generation born into the social media maelstrom, I think there might be a level of discomfort with what was shown.

I like a bargain as much as the next person, but I would not be comfortable level of predictive profiling, even if most of this is gathered from inference as opposed to specifically submitted information.

I suspect that the default mode of operation of many European consumers would not leave so much of a footprint as to facilitate this model, nor GDPR support it.

And to return to the earlier analogy, I suspect that this, like the Geneva motor show concept, although achievable with current technology, may be far from what we actually experience in the immediate future.


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