What Is AI Good For?

With all the hype surrounding artificial intelligence, it is important not to get too immersed in the technical and science fiction aspects. Steve Jobs said “You‘ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.” and this is true of artificial intelligence as well. Although a full discussion is totally out of the scope of a short blog post, I would like to provide a few perspectives.

Contextual interfaces

In my opinion, the right click in Windows 95 was a huge innovation. Prior to that, one had to look inside a huge array of options under a menu bar, or scan through a panel of small and often obfuscated icons. The right-click contextual menu showed a short list of tasks that were all relevant to the object that was currently selected and relieved you of this wasteful routine.

Although this may not strictly be classified as AI, the way that that it lessened the burden on the human brain was significant.

Similarly, one application of AI that would most certainly be very popular with users would be UI improvements that significantly reduced the need to scan through a list of options to find the relevant actions. In iOS 10, Apple has introduced AI that learns which emails should be sorted to which folders and intelligently provides a shortcut so that sorting emails is much quicker and easier.

Automated processing

Email spam filters learn what emails have a high probability of being span. From a user perspective, this is by all means artificial intelligence.

Although spam filters occasionally make mistakes, they help save our time and cognitive load by pre-filtering out stuff that is completely irrelevant to our work. Good spam filters also protect us from phishing attacks which can compromise whole corporate networks, and so it is no surprise that these are in high demand.

This is a very important market for AI.

Data Detectors

Apple had a patent for a very powerful technology commonly known as Data Detectors. This technology can detect addresses, event dates etc. inside text, and dramatically improves the user experience on smartphones where it is inconvenient to copy and paste.

The analysis of text, prediction of what a user might want to do with it, and providing a convenient and intuitive UI that enables the user to quickly get it done, can be a great timesaver.

Voice Recognition

It is well know that machine learning techniques have greatly improved voice recognition. Voice recognition has historically been valued by people who have difficulty typing. With mobile devices, voice recognition is convenient when you cannot use your hands.

Voice Interface

Graphical user interfaces are great for a stepwise approach for getting things done. However, since they operate by providing a list of options on a 2D screen, there is a limit to the breadth of commands that can be issued at any one time.

Command line interfaces and voice interfaces can get around this issue because they do not have to present a list of options. They are limited only by the ability of the user to memorise the available commands, and to issue them without referring to a menu. Hence voice interfaces are a convenient way to issue tasks quickly.

Summing up

My intention with this post was to show that there is much more to AI than a voice UI, and that from a practical perspective, the other applications have already proven to be very significant in terms of user benefit. Although voice UIs and predictive assistants like Google Now are interesting and futuristic, there is no reason why these applications will be the most useful and revolutionary.

Current advances in machine learning (Deep Learning) will build upon what we already have, and for smartphones with big screens, what we already have is a good graphical user interface.

AI, Voice UIs and predictive assistants should be evaluated based on their merits. How will they save us time and for what tasks? How will they help us when we cannot or it would be inconvenient to view our phone screens? How can they reduce our cognitive load?

Apple is pretty good at understanding what the user experience should be, and arguably, this will be just as important or maybe even more so than the underlying algorithms.

Peak Google Revisited

Almost a year ago, I noted that while a few prominent tech pundits had pronounced “Peak Google” at the beginning of 2015, Google was actually as strong as ever 12 months later.

In my post, I said that since no company keeps succeeding forever, anybody that predicts the demise of a company without giving a specific timeframe will always eventually be right. That is to say, any prediction without a timeframe is utterly valueless. I also noted that giving a timeline is extremely difficult.

However, I think we now have enough information to give a rough timeline on when we can expect “Peak Google” in financial terms.

Data points

I will lean on the following data points.

  1. The historically constant size of advertising spending
    In 2014, Eric Chemi writing for Bloomberg noted that the US advertising industry has always been about 1 percent of US GDP since the 1920s. This is significant because the US is much wealthier than it was 100 years ago, and it has gone though many ups and downs, even one world war in this time.
  2. The share of internet advertising within the whole advertising market
    According to eMarketer, total digital ad spending in 2017 will be 38.4% (77.37 billion USD) of total media ad spending. It will surpass TV ad spending which will be 35.8% of total.
  3. Google’s US advertising revenue is 31.00 billion USD in 2015, calculated from 67.39 billion global revenue of which 46% comes from the US. This is close to half of total digital ad spending (77.37 billion USD as noted above).
  4. Facebook’s 2015 advertising revenue was 17.08 billion USD. This is roughly a quarter of Google’s.
  5. As noted by Horace Dediu, economic growth in developing nations is not accelerating Google’s revenue growth. Despite rapid economic growth, developing nations are not becoming a larger part of Google’s revenue.

Assumptions

I will also assume the following;

  1. Google will not find a new revenue source that will be large enough to significantly add to its top line.
  2. Google’s revenue growth will continue to be dependent on and on par with growth in the US.

Logic

  1. Since the size of total media ad spending is constant as a percentage of GDP, this is the hard ceiling of advertising growth in the US.
  2. Digital ad spending is rapidly approaching this ceiling. With already close to 40% of total ad spending, there is less and less room left for digital to grow.
  3. Google has close to half of total digital ad spending. Of the remainder, it is likely that Facebook is taking half of this. Google has little space to grow by increasing its share within the total digital ad market. In fact, it is more likely that Facebook will eat into Google’s ad market share. Note that one estimate suggests that Google & Facebook own 85% of the US the digital ad market.
  4. Since Google’s ad revenue growth has largely been independent of developing countries, it is reasonable to assume that this will continue for the mid-term.

In simple terms, there is no longer room in the advertising industry for both Google and Facebook. Since Facebook has more momentum, it is likely that we will see Google being increasingly squeezed. Although the total digital ad spending will likely still see mid double digit growth, Facebook will take the majority of this growth and Google will probably drop to single digit growth before 2020.

What to expect in the future

We are already seeing signs of more disciplined spending at Google/Alphabet, most likely in anticipation of a slow-down in growth. Given the highly talented people at Google, it is no surprise that they understand that the end of double digit ad revenue growth is near.

However, disciplined spending can significantly alter what projects companies chase. Unlike the current Google which constantly throws spaghetti on the wall, a fiscally disciplined Google would probably be more cautious. Within the next few years, I expect that we will see a very different Google from what we are seeing now.

Update

One important thing to note is that “Peak Google” will be a result not of any strategic mistake made by the company, but rather a result of the saturation of the digital advertising market. This has the following implications;

  1. The whole digital advertising industry will suffer along with Google. In fact, smaller and less established players are more susceptible to adverse environments. This is already happening

  2. The saturation of the digital advertising industry also means the saturation of the ad-driven Internet. Startups without a monetisation model will find it harder to bolt-on an ad-driven one later.

  3. Being the most established brand in digital advertising, it is likely that Google will maintain a very strong position in the market for years to come. Like Apple, the issue will be the lack of rapid growth.

Smartphone Sales Down In Japan, But Android Hurting Most

MMRI released their report for mobile phone sales in Japan for he first half of 2016, and the results were not good. 

  1. Total handset sales decreased by 10.9% YoY. 
  2. Smartphones decreased 8.4% YoY. 
  3. However, looking at iPhone sales, this decreased only 3.1%, resulting in an increased market share of 40.7% (including feature phones).
  4. Importantly, Sony which is 2nd in market share saw a 28.5% drop in sales, while Sharp which is 3rd in smartphone share fell off a cliff with a 46.4% drop. 
  5. The sharp decline has been attributed to the government decision to restrict what they consider excessive discounting of devices. The government thinks that by restricting discounting (some smartphones are sold for free by carriers if the purchaser agrees to a 24 month contract), carriers will eventually reduce the prices of their data plans. However, data plan prices have yet to come down, and are actually increasing depending on your usage pattern. 

What this suggests is that when customers are more exposed to the real price of smartphones, it is the Android users who either decide to buy cheaper devices, or hold on to their devices longer. The iPhone users seem to be less sensitive to price increases. 

In a nutshell, the Android market has a high level of price elasticity whereas the iPhone market does not. 

I believe that the iPhone markets and the Android markets are actually different despite both being smartphones. Customers buy each for different needs, and they are not interchangeable. This is similar to how Mercedes and BMWs do not share the same market as cheap cars; the role of luxury cars is not just transportation. 

Who Will Win The Next Big Thing?

Many people seem to think that the next big thing in tech will be artificial intelligence, and that Google is much better positioned to win than Apple. Other people think that VR/AR is the next big thing, and again, at least one of the companies that is currently announcing hot new VR/AR gadgets is going to win (and not Apple).

However, history has clearly shown that this discussion is without merit. In fact, when a next big thing does come along, the most unexpected company or a company that simply did not exist before, is the one that actually wins. Very rarely if ever, does the company that invests tons of money on the early stage research emerge as the victor.

Google did not exist yet when Yahoo, Lycos, Altavista and many others were first battling to become the telephone directory of the web. Apple was just a failed PC company that was finding success in music when Blackberry, Palm, Microsoft and Nokia were battling to bring smartphones to the masses. Again Apple was a company that was fighting a losing war against IBM when Steve Jobs visited Xerox PARC which had invested heavily in next generation computing research. Compaq did not exist when IBM introduced the IBM Personal Computer. Microsoft was not even in the OS market when IBM knocked on the door looking for an OS for the x86 CPU.

Time and time again, history has shown that when something really new comes along, the companies that seem to have the strongest position from both market and technical standpoints, are rarely the ones that win in the end. The companies that do win are those that we would not even think about, or the ones that didn’t exist. This is what Clayton Christensen’s Disruption Theory is all about.

Therefore from a historical standpoint, if AI or VR/AR succeeds in disrupting tech, it is actually very unlikely that Google, Microsoft of Facebook would win in the end. These companies are in the exact same positions regarding AI and VR/AR as were Blackberry and Palm prior to iPhone, or as were Yahoo, Lycos and others were prior to Google Search. They have invested heavily into research and also into developing the early market. However, they have not yet discovered the formula that would propel them into the mass market.

No matter how unlikely it may seem today, history is actually quite unequivocal on this. The large and established companies that pioneer an early market, do not reap the rewards when disruption happens and the market goes mainstream. The odds are against Google for winning in AI, and the odds are against Microsoft and Facebook for winning in AR/VR (assuming though that AI and AR/VR do end up being disruptive technologies and not simply sustaining).

Although it is almost impossible to predict what will happen, I will just end this post highlighting a couple scenarios under which the Google might find itself vulnerable for illustrative purposes only.

  1. What if privacy became a block for AI penetrating the mainstream? What if consumers started to feel uneasy with the suggestions that Google’s AI made. What if a data breach at a major internet advertising company made it clear to mainstream customers that far more information was being collected about them than they had ever imagined? What if the technology emerged that made machine learning possible without compromising privacy? Would Google invest in this technology, or would it try to improve the AI results with its current privacy compromising methods? It is likely that Google will invest in the latter, which might be a bet on the wrong horse.
  2. AI could actually become the biggest threat to Google’s business model. What would happen if somebody came along with a good enough AI service which made web search obsolete, and which was combined with a monetisation scheme that was far less profitable than Google’s search advertising? Would Google copy that scheme, or would it wait until it found something that was at least as lucrative as the search business that it was cannibalising? What if this service took off, while Google was still looking for ways to maintain profits?

Twitter Grows 13% in Japan

Twitter Japan announced on the 2nd November that user growth had been 13% (+5 million) for the past 9 months, bringing the Japanese monthly active user count (MAU) to 40 million in September. This compares to Twitters MAU growth in the rest of the world, which is essentially flat.

In December 2015, Twitter Japan announced that 10% of MAUs were from Japan.

I have written on this topic several times on this blog. What I think is most important is that the features and characteristics of social media platforms are not dictated by what features they have and do not have, but instead are determined by the users themselves. Therefore, all the pundits that say Twitter should do this or Twitter should do that are essentially clueless because they only know how they or their close circles use Twitter, but are mostly blind to how other are using it. Analysing what features are available does not capture what people use a social service for, nor does it give you any idea of how people would use a new feature when available.

Social media needs social analysis. Furthermore, you need to analyse many societies and not one society.