It’s impossible to ignore the impact of technology on business in this day and age, not to mention the lightning speed at which it’s developing. Technological advancements such as artificial intelligence and cloud databases are rapidly shaping an ever-evolving blueprint of how we conduct business in the future, regardless of whether you’re a multinational company or a newly formed startup.
If we look ahead five or 500 years from now, one thing is guaranteed – technology will change the business scene as we know it! ‘Digital disruption’ may feel like a buzzword, but the implications of its reach and influence have never been more noticeable.
Experts from The University of Queensland (UQ) Business School in the areas of marketing, business information systems, customer service and tourism weigh in on five key technological developments impacting companies at all levels that will continue to evolve and globally change the face business.
Virtual and Augmented Realities
Virtual and augmented realities (VR and AR) cover a broad umbrella of technology combinations, centred on computer-generated imagery and projections. Both with the end goal of creating an immersive and interactive user experience, providing an enhanced hyper-reality.
One of the most globally gripping AR phenomena recently to grab attention and mass participation was Pokémon Go. People were reportedly running out into the middle of traffic, missing social catch ups and even work as they attempted to catch virtual Pokémon in their everyday lives. The game was powered by mobile phones projecting animated characters onto user’s screens in their day-to-day surroundings.
Areas that will continue to be impacted by virtual and augmented realities will be retail environments, marketing, events, customer experience and even tourism.
How virtual and augmented realities enhance the customer experience
According to marketing expert at UQ Business School, Associate Professor Sarah Kelly, virtual and augmented realities are fantastic at providing immersive experiences.
“Virtual and augmented realities provide experiential and immersive sampling prior to purchase; they're a great value-add to help consumers gain a more enriched experience of a product or service, which can help customers reduce a risk of uncertainty and therefore boost brand preference and sales.”
Associate Professor Kelly notes that VR and AR shops are already being piloted by Apple and automotive companies for in-store advertising to enhance the customer experience. She identifies that experiential marketing will continue to increase with these technologies, offering an interactive experience for consumers in retail environments, as well as events and tourist attractions.
“The significant advantage of augmented reality, is the experience can be shared across users, whether that’s trying on clothing virtually, shared experiences at an event or online gaming,” said Associate Professor Kelly.
Customer experience expert, Associate Professor David Solnet agrees that virtual and augmented realities represent a continuing growth in technologies, for a demand to enhance a customer’s reality.
“The opportunity with these technologies is impressive, and lower risk than other developing technologies such as drones and driverless cars."
“We’ll also see a lot more mobile technologies in the VR and AR space, much faster speed and a huge uptake in subscription services like Apple Music and Netflix. Many companies will be using real-time computing technology and bandwidth to sell ‘single unit experiences,’ as well as subscription-based products and services,” said Associate Professor Solnet.
How tourism utilises augmented and virtual realities
Tourism Expert from UQ Business School, Associate Professor Pierre Benckendorff says larger tourism operators and industry bodies have already embraced VR.
“Virtual reality is already used at trade shows, in museums and as an education tool,” said Associate Professor Benckendorff.
“There have been trials of the technology for in-flight entertainment with Qantas, or hotel room entertainment; a few years ago Marriott Hotels even trialled virtual honeymoons to London and Hawaii as a destination marketing tool.”
Associate Professor Benckendorff believes that while 360 degree promotional VR videos on YouTube and Facebook appeal to some consumers, the real development will be in augmented reality for tourism.
“The tourism applications for augmented realities are much more promising than VR in the longer term, but these technologies are even less mature than VR. In time, it’s possible that AR will be the more accessible and cost-effective option for tourism.”
Artificial Intelligence and Robots
The rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) or machine learning, has been happening for some time now, but the sophistication of how AI will develop in the future is where this technology will come into its own. The term artificial intelligence is used to describe machines that mimic cognitive functions that humans associate with other human minds, such as learning and problem-solving.
While AI connotes cutting edge, the term ‘robots’ can often distil a sense of unease in many consumers and also in the business world. An ongoing debate regarding the relationship robots will play with humans in the future is particularly topical for businesses both on the customer service front and from a skills future-proofing point of view.
The idea of robots for many may conjure up visions of a mechanical human form, fuelled by movies and series such as Terminator, I, Robot and Westworld. However, what people may not realise, is that we already encounter AI and robots in our current day-to-day lives at different levels. Online Chatbot’s are already a well-used customer service tool for the digital frontage of many businesses, as are self-service machines.
So how does machine learning function? Dr Ida Someh, a business information systems expert at UQ Business School says algorithms are the key.
“AI algorithms autonomously learn from training data sets with minimum human instructions – this will mean organisations can amass extensive amounts of data from wearable technologies, sensory devices and social media, and then conduct large-scale processing of data with algorithms that have complex inner-workings and are difficult to comprehend for humans.”
The opportunities AI and robots present
According to Dr Someh, process efficiencies are a substantial positive outcome of AI and robots.
“Tools such as Chatbots can simultaneously respond to many customer enquiries all at once, at a much faster rate than a human can,” said Dr Someh.
Associate Professor Sarah Kelly believes the impact of AI from a sales and marketing perspective is enormous.
“AI will work with Customer Relationship Management (CRM) programs to aggregate and interpret raw data in real time . Lead times for sales will be a lot more efficient and customer journey mapping will be more granular, identifying a person’s preferences almost before they do, whether it's online or as they walk into a store ,” said Associate Professor Kelly.
“I think in the future there is a good chance that mobiles could be replaced with chip technology that is physically placed on or inside us."
"We will be able to walk into a shop, business or event and have a customised offering based upon sophisticated and deep AI prediction of our needs and desires based upon our data, and profiling of our market segment." said Associate Professor Kelly.
When asked about the accessibility of AI and robot technology to smaller businesses, Associate Professor Kelly believes it doesn’t present much of a problem.
“I think it will be really accessible to small and medium-sized businesses. Like most new technology, it is initially more costly, but then less expensive as the innovation diffuses."
"There are already cloud-based software and virtual bot assistant options which are very accessible; the use of bots to improve efficiency and quality of service reduces labour and training costs for any sized business,” said Associate Professor Kelly.
The challenging aspects of AI and robots
While machine learning offers many advantages and opportunities, there is much debate about the workforce displacement and ethical implications that come with its development.
Dr Someh notes several challenges that the rise of AI and robots raises.
“Data always has hidden biases and algorithms that learn from the data can quickly learn the wrong thing. An example would be Microsoft’s Chatbot ‘Tay’ which became racist by learned interactions after conversing with humans on Twitter,” said Dr Someh.
“We still don’t know how to control the AI’s learning process, setting algorithm parameters is a complex task.”
Dr Someh also identifies some barriers for small businesses and startups in relation to the accumulation of good quality data.
“Digital born companies like Google and Facebook have exploited individuals for data and the access to data has helped to train better algorithms. For startups and small businesses to get good at AI, they need to build a comprehensive data asset platform to train their algorithms.”
Associate Professor Kelly also an expert in law, notes that for at least the next five years, if not longer, AI will have its limitations when it comes to ethical decision making, creativity and cut-through.
“These areas still require human complexity – ethical decisions and creativity are particularly important,” said Associate Professor Kelly.
“There may be some customers that will still demand a human interface."
“Marketers needed to train the bots correctly for them to be truly valuable to customers, there needs to be an evolution of skills between AI and the customer which needs to be carefully considered and taught.”
"Humans are still needed to detect unintended consequences of AI, such as inherent bias, this is crucial for marketers," said Associate Professor Kelly.
The growth of drones from highly expensive tech equipment to affordable recreational pursuits for photography, filming, live coverage and more has happened fast. Over five years ago, Amazon Prime unveiled what many expected to become the future of product delivery – small drones capable of carrying up to two kilograms worth of cargo, touted to have products to consumers in 30 minutes or less if they live near a distribution centre.
While the idea of drones raises many challenges with regards to the management of air space, restrictions around weather conditions and cross border complications; there’s no denying they have already carved a path as the outcome of a flighted technology that will have an impact on customer experience and marketing.
Associate Professor Sarah Kelly says, “Drones are increasingly appearing in the marketing scene as efficient, inexpensive and reliable tools to gather data, record and disseminate video, delivery and engagement.”
Associate Professor David Solnet agrees that the applications of drones will continue to grow and shape businesses.
“I think drones will become a lot more than just a delivery tool – think about real estate, photography, mapping, traffic flow monitoring and so forth.”
Uber launched a new division called Uber Elevate, whose vision is to provide aerial ridesharing in a drone style aircraft with an ambitious launch timeline of 2023 for the first prototype. The drone trend even extends to delivery of their other services, such as Uber Eats in the companies proposal.
“Drones have many advantages for business, and something that many companies need to factor into their innovation planning for customer service; however, they will also remove the need for humans at many levels of function,” said Associate Professor Solnet.
Blockchain technology has paved the way for a new era of digital currency – the popularisation of cryptocurrency. But, what exactly is blockchain technology?
Put simply – blockchain is a system in which a time-stamped record of transactions called blocks (such as bitcoin or another cryptocurrency) are maintained across several computers that are linked in a peer-to-peer network.
The main advantage of blockchain is its transparency of any data modification– an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way.
Previously, we have relied on trusted third parties, such as lawyers, courts, banks and governments to process and keep authoritative records about commercial transactions; but these methods can leave room for human error and aren’t tamper-proof.
Data expert from UQ Business School, Dr Micheal Axelsen believes Blockchain will play a part in the development of businesses globally, as the infrastructure that supports what we all do every day – but without the level of visibility or media attention that cryptocurrencies have received.
“While blockchain technology used in cryptocurrencies offers a more familiar and visible end product – digital money, I think its future usage maybe in ways that we don’t see," said Dr Axelsen.
“Secure tamper-evident document transmission and tamper-evident locks might become commonplace; blockchain might be there when we sign for a parcel, or open a storage locker. However, we would not see the blockchain in action. "
Dr Axelsen believes some applications of blockchain will be transformative for particular areas of business.
“Auditors for example, still spend a great deal of time reviewing audit trails and determining the provenance of (and any alterations to) data. If blockchain becomes ubiquitous, that means that any data entered into the blockchain cannot be altered without that alteration being clearly evident," said Dr Axelsen.
"The auditor’s role in determining whether that data has been altered will disappear – in this case, an auditor’s role may be more centred on testing the integrity of the data recorded in the blockchain and its implications for business.”
According to Dr Axelsen, any time we have data that is relatively static that we want to transmit and know when it has been changed, then there is a chance to use blockchain. Due to its nature, blockchain provides a tamper-evident audit log.
“For example, a blockchain-enabled lock could be created that records whenever it has been opened,” said Dr Axelsen.
“In the supply chain, blockchain can be used to record whether an item of food has been allowed to thaw as it got too hot in transmit, or perhaps as a record of speeds travelled by a vehicle and its location. Other opportunities exist in areas as diverse as health records, passports, student grades, online voting or gambling.”
One of the most highly-anticipated technology advancements for 2019 was the commercialisation of self-driving vehicles. However, while several tests for driverless buses has launched in many parts of Australia including Sydney Olympic Park and even Ipswich, the touted launch for driverless cars to hit the streets in 2019 hasn’t happened as fast as expected, but the change is inevitable.
In 2018, General Motors spent 12.4 per cent of its $192bn revenue on driverless vehicle research, development and capital expenditures on – a clear backing and commitment to the commercial launch of the new technology.
Customer service expert, Associate Professor David Solnet believes driverless vehicles are “part of the wider integration of transport in cities.”
“The technology for driverless vehicles is getter closer to making its public use a reality."
“It’s not hard to foresee this option of transport becoming more common soon, at least on some basic and frequent routes in big cities,” said Associate Professor Solnet.
“It may not sit well with the current people-powered business models such as taxis and Uber’s; however, throughout history work may change, but won’t get eliminated – new functions surrounding this technology will emerge that require humans in different ways.
In regards to uptake by customers, Associate Professor Solnet believes that removing the cost of human resourcing will greatly reduce the cost of transport and increase uptake.
“I see driverless cars as part of the wider integration of transport in cities, connecting bikes, scooters, cars, walking and even driverless drone transportation – creating an easy to use and integrated way to get around."
“Driverless vehicles are part of a greater evolving transport ecosystem, which will benefit many people with a more efficient and seamless experience to get about,” said Associate Professor Solnet.
What about the legal implications?
While there are ethical implications surrounding each of the technologies investigated, another critical area that limits the dissemination of some of these technologies to businesses is governance and legislation.
Associate Professor Kelly observes, “the law is really struggling to keep up, everyone is struggling; most of these technologies evolve at a much faster rate than legislation can.”
“Many of our laws are exceptionally outdated, and a significant portion of legal experts aren’t trained on that front – an excellent example is the recent United States Congress hearing, which questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for privacy breaches of data, in which many members of Congress demonstrated they didn’t understand how the platform worked, let alone how the laws applied.”
Associate Professor Kelly points out that most laws are constitutionally based, which vary across the world and are problematic for trans-national rights, detection and enforcement.”
“The problem with the internet, AI and big data is that they are global in nature, but face cross-jurisdiction complexity – one day there could be a universal jurisdiction, as it has been demonstrated many times that self-governance of these technologies and platforms doesn’t work.”
“These technologies offer so much potential to businesses and consumers, but information can also be a weapon,” said Associate Professor Kelly.
“The greatest challenge isn’t in the rapid development of these technologies – it’s having the right ethical framework and governance systems to handle them responsibly.”