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Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Parenting (The joy of reading with Bindu Agarwal), Business (Getting started on the ROI of Customer Experience; Indian auto's big bet amid a bleak year), and Technology (The perils of Generative Adversarial Networks; Dealing with free speech on social media)

Published: Oct 31, 2020 10:00:00 AM IST
Updated: Oct 30, 2020 09:25:12 PM IST

Ten interesting things we read this weekImage: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, ranging from zeitgeist to futuristic, and encapsulate them in our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Parenting (The joy of reading with Bindu Agarwal), Business (Getting started on the ROI of Customer Experience; Indian auto’s big bet amid a bleak year), and Technology (The perils of Generative Adversarial Networks; Dealing with free speech on social media)

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended October 30, 2020: 

1) The future of jobs [Source: World Economic Forum

Will the jobs that many people hold, become obsolete in the near future? If so, then what the new jobs/skills that will emerge? These and other such questions are answered in this report. The COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdowns and related global recession of 2020 have created a highly uncertain outlook for the labour market and accelerated the arrival of the future of work. The Future of Jobs Report 2020 aims to shed light on: 1) the pandemic-related disruptions thus far in 2020, contextualized within a longer history of economic cycles, and 2) the expected outlook for technology.

Some of the key findings from the report are: 1) The pace of technology adoption is expected to remain unabated and may accelerate in some areas. 2) Automation, in tandem with the COVID-19 recession, is creating a ‘double-disruption’ scenario for workers. 3) The window of opportunity to reskill and upskill workers has become shorter in the newly constrained labour market. 4) Companies need to invest in better metrics of human and social capital through adoption of environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics and matched with renewed measures of human capital accounting.

The ongoing disruption to labour markets from the Fourth Industrial Revolution has been further complicated—and in some cases accelerated—by the onset of the pandemic-related recession of 2020. The most relevant question to businesses, governments and individuals is not to what extent automation and augmentation of human labour will affect current employment numbers, but under what conditions the global labour market can be supported towards a new equilibrium in the division of labour between human workers, robots and algorithms. 

2) Joy of Reading for Children with Bindu Agarwal [Source: Youtube; India Parenting

Since our childhood, we are thought that reading is a must. While school syllabus is important, it’s by reading that you can more knowledge. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, gained knowledge about rockets and space by reading! And it is parents responsibility to make their children develop a habit of reading. That’s what Bindu Agarwal, founder of Reading Curve, talk about in this interview.

She starts with her story of how she got into reading. Having an engineer dad, a voracious reader of history, and mother being an English literature masters, she had no escape from reading. Books were all that she had as she grew up. Her kids also starting reading early on in their lives. She also recommends a few books for kids of all ages. She suggests younger ones should be given books that have more of pictures and less of text like Clifford the Dog, books by Jyotsna Prakashan (Indian publisher), Flat Stanley, etc.

Parents play an important role in inculcating any habit in children. She has one important tip for the parents: Even if your child is already reading, you please don’t stop reading to them. She also emphasizes on reading aloud till age 10-12. Also, children learn by looking and mimicking parents. So, if parents are not reading, then forcing kid to read will be tougher. If you as parents read, then you are not just demonstrating, but also role-modelling it.

3) Getting started on the ROI of Customer Experience [Source: kantar.com]

Customer experience (CX) is vital for any brand/company to become a leader in its industry. This article highlights three steps to help brands to get started on that journey.

1) Establish a compelling business case for CX: Many CX programmes fail because they lose momentum after a couple of years. Not because the belief in the importance has faded, but because it is hard to continuously activate organisational change. There are many roadblocks and challenges to becoming a truly customer-centric organisation. A clear vision to guide the programme is crucial, but it is also important to start the programme with a strong business case for CX.

2) Reduce complexity: Before the complexity gets too overwhelming, it helps to focus on one journey or one customer segment to understand the impact of experiences. Many companies are closing the loop with customers to “repair” the relationship when severe service issues have occurred. Especially when KPIs are tracked before and after this process, the impact on CX can easily be quantified. It is also helpful to look at financial and CX KPIs on an aggregated level. Track how revenues, profitability and churn rates have evolved over time and in different branches, stores or regions. Linking this to attitudinal KPIs will not only provide insights into how experiences link to financial performance, but also which actions (e.g. in different stores or branches) have been particularly successful and could serve as best practice examples.

3) Utilise technology platforms to link CX to operational and financial data: While the link to financial metrics is crucial to build a business case, it is much more than an exercise to demonstrate the value of CX. CX Analytics should be utilised to guide investment decisions. Many companies are working heavily on moving customers towards digital channels. Costs per contact are a lot less than telephone hotlines and offer much greater opportunities for automation, for example through chatbots or AI. Being a relatively young discipline, CX is and will continue to be asked to identify the return on investment. Curiously, no one questions the fact that companies (at least of a certain size) need to have a CFO. Someone needs to be accountable for finances, analyse, plan and potentially course-correct. The case for a Chief Experience or a Chief Customer Officer is strangely less clear, but it shouldn’t be.

4) It’s time to build [Source: a16z.com

No country was prepared for the pandemic. Part of the problem is clearly foresight, a failure of imagination. But the other part of the problem is what we didn’t *do* in advance, and what we’re failing to do now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to *build*. We don’t have enough coronavirus tests, or test materials — including, amazingly, cotton swabs and common reagents. We don’t have enough ventilators, negative pressure rooms, and ICU beds. And we don’t have enough surgical masks, eye shields, and medical gowns.

Why do we not have these things? Medical equipment and financial conduits involve no rocket science whatsoever. At least therapies and vaccines are hard! Making masks and transferring money are not hard. We could have these things but we chose not to — specifically we chose not to have the mechanisms, the factories, the systems to make these things. We chose not to *build*. But now it’s time for full-throated, unapologetic, uncompromised political support from the right for aggressive investment in new products, in new industries, in new factories, in new science, in big leaps forward.

Building isn’t easy. We need to demand more of our political leaders, of our CEOs, our entrepreneurs, our investors. We need to demand more of our culture, of our society. And we need to demand more from one another. We’re all necessary, and we can all contribute, to building. Our nation and our civilization were built on production, on building. Our forefathers and foremothers built roads and trains, farms and factories, then the computer, the microchip, the smartphone, and uncounted thousands of other things that we now take for granted, that are all around us, that define our lives and provide for our well-being. There is only one way to honor their legacy and to create the future we want for our own children and grandchildren, and that’s to build.

5) Disinformed [Source: inference-review.com]

There have been fakes as long as there have been frauds; but deepfakes are new fakes, and having initially loitered along the margins of general awareness, they are now occupied in haunting it. The ability to produce ever more persuasive deepfakes has been made possible by a recent form of machine learning called generative adversarial networks (GANs). A GAN operator pits a generator (G) against a discriminator (D) in a gamelike environment in which G tries to fool D into incorrectly discriminating between fake and real data. The technology works by means of a series of incremental but rapid adjustments that allows D to discriminate data while G tries to fool it.

GAN technology is not particularly exotic; the software is available commercially, and anyone who can write code can figure out how to use it. If simply using it is open admission, what about using it to change the 2020 election? GANs can reconstruct three-dimensional images from two-dimensional photographs. They can be used to visualize industrial design, improve astronomical images by filling in statistically what real cameras cannot capture, and generate showers of imaginary particles for high-energy physics experiments. GANs can also be used to visualize motion in static environments, which could help find people lost or hiding in forests or jungles.

Large numbers of people living in technologically advanced environments see more mediated visual images than real ones. We have gotten so used to mediated visual events, many of them freak-show-like spectacles, that what is real and what is not have become blurred by the time most people become young adults. A deepfake may have a vastly greater chance of working because it is delivered in a manner that has become completely seamless.

6)  Is tech getting more competitive? [Source: The Economist]    

The largest tech companies have expanded into a dizzying range of industries. Amazon faces credible e-commerce rivals in the form of Walmart and Shopify. Video-streaming is a fight for supremacy between half a dozen firms. And cloud computing has become a fiercely contested market, too. Cloud computing took off about 15 years ago, as businesses began to outsource their web-hosting, data centres, core computer systems and many applications to a few big providers, particularly the pioneer AWS, run by Amazon. The pandemic has shown just how critical the cloud has become. Many of the economy’s main functions depend on it, including a wide range of e-commerce sites and applications that let you work from home.

The cloud brings obvious benefits. The firms using it replace lumpy capital expenditure on rickety bespoke it with a variable payment for a service that can easily expand its capacity as needed. That is one reason firms such as Zoom have been able to grow so fast during the lockdown. Having many users for each piece of infrastructure means they are put to work more efficiently. The biggest fear has been of a cloud monopoly. AWS remains the cloud’s biggest firm, but Microsoft, the original antitrust bad boy, is putting up a fierce fight with its own service, Azure, and hopes to get more of its Office and Windows customers to use it for the cloud, too.

Alphabet is also putting its cloud forward. On October 8th ibm said it would spin off part of its services business to focus on the “hybrid-cloud”, which marries old-fashioned on-site work with the cloud. Likewise Oracle’s proposed bid for TikTok, a social-media firm, is in part an effort to secure an anchor-customer for its nascent cloud operation. The regulators will have a tough task of ensuring that there’s a fair play for everyone. Treating big tech as a monopolistic monolith does not make sense when some markets are competitive. Nor does banning tech firms from entering adjacent new markets—as a recent congressional report proposed. Better for governments to ensure that users have control over their data, and then vigorously tackle the areas like search and social media where monopolies have taken hold.

7) Dealing with free speech on social media [Source: The Economist]  

Social media has become an important part in our lives. Elections are won on the basis of social media. The tech giants are the ones who gain the most and hold the power. These few companies hold a lot of power. Is it good? A tenth of Americans think social media are beneficial; almost two-thirds that they cause harm. Since February YouTube has identified over 200,000 “dangerous or misleading” videos on covid-19. Before the vote in 2016, 110m-130m adult Americans saw fake news. In Myanmar Facebook has been used to incite genocidal attacks against the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority.

In America the right fears that, urged on by a Democratic White House, Congress and their own employees, the firms’ bosses will follow left-leaning definitions of what is acceptable. Contrast that with the First Amendment’s broad licence to cause offence. Elsewhere, governments have also used social media companies to go beyond the law, often without public debate. In London the Metropolitan Police requests that they take down legal, but troubling, posts. In June France’s Constitutional Council struck down a deal between the government and the tech companies because it curbed free speech.

In order to sell more ads, the tech companies’ algorithms send you news and posts that they think will grab your attention. Political cynics, con artists and extremists take advantage of this bias towards virality to spread lies and hatred. Bots and deep fakes, realistic posts of public figures doing or saying things that never happened, make their job cheaper and easier. They are rapidly becoming more sophisticated. The tech firms may want to flag abuses, including in post-election presidential tweets, but they should resist getting dragged into every debate. Short of incitement to violence, they should not block political speech. Politicians’ flaws are better exposed by noisy argument than enforced silence.

8) How e-groceries have finally come of age [Source: Livemint

Diwali is the biggest festival celebrated all across India. People look up to this festival of light. And during this period, all brands/companies fight for customers’ attention. Since 2014, every year, Amazon and Flipkart, which together dominate the e-commerce market, have held heavily advertised sales events in this period, which typically starts four weeks before Diwali and ends a few days before the day of the festival. Huge discounts are offered on mobile phones, electronics and fashion, three categories that together account for more than 90% of all spending online in the period.

Last year, for instance, online retailers (mostly Amazon and Flipkart) raked in nearly $4 billion during the festive season, accounting for about 14% of annual e-commerce, according to data with RedSeer Consulting. “The Diwali sale used to be a nice-to-have event for us in previous years, but this year, we’re starting to see a surge in sales, and we are needing to prepare our partners, warehouses, delivery executives to make preparations for the event," said Albinder Dhindsa, chief executive officer of Grofers, the second largest e-groceries app. Apart from the fear of transmission, the economic slowdown has increased the lure of e-grocers, which offer low prices through the year.

Presently, BigBasket is the clear market leader in e-grocery, followed by Grofers. Over the years, Flipkart and Amazon have experimented with different models in groceries, but they have been far less successful in this category than in others like apparel, electronics and books. Reliance’s JioMart has said it is present in more than 200 cities, but the availability and consistency of its service is still patchy in many markets. According to industry executives and analysts, JioMart has helped expand the market and attract new customers to the category rather than taking away market share from incumbents. Others like D-Mart and the Tata Group are planning to enter. Despite the size of the grocery market and the low online penetration in the category, the e-grocery space could soon become crowded.

9) Indian auto’s big bet amid a bleak year [Source: Livemint 

The auto industry was already facing challenges when the pandemic hit the world. The coronavirus pandemic made it worse for the automakers. The number of sales executives has steeply dropped following a pandemic-induced lockdown and nearly two years of bleak auto sales, but the absence of customers is starker, especially around this time of the year. “Many used to come in to enquire about the cars they want to purchase and even just to take pictures next to the cars they were interested in," said a Maruti sales executive. He also said that physical enquiries have improved but not as much as last year. Talking about advertising spends, all major auto manufacturers have planned new launches and facelifts of existing models and are expected to spend over ₹1,500 crore in advertising over the next two to three months as per estimates of leading media buyers.

Already, in September, the local unit of Suzuki Motor Corp reported a 33.4% year-on-year growth in domestic wholesale sales to dealers (amounting to over 150,000 units). On a sequential, or month-on-month basis, Maruti’s factory dispatches have shot up from around 100,000 in July. Hero has also reported a 16.11% year-on-year rise in its domestic wholesale dispatches for September. Hyundai and other manufacturers, too, are headed down a similar path. According to Vinkesh Gulati, an automobile dealer and president of the Federation of Automobile Dealers Associations, the hope is that sales in some segments will touch at least the low base of last year.

Y S Guleria, director, sales and marketing, Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India Pvt Ltd, admits that it will be difficult to match even last year’s low base since the reason for a decline in sales this year is an unprecedented stagnation in economic growth, which is likely to be the worst in the history of independent India. Honda, though, has witnessed a 43% month-on-month jump in bookings in the first ten days of October, he says. While many feel this will be a good festive season, what about beyond the festive season? Top executives in auto firms and parts suppliers are concerned about a further contraction in demand after the festive season if there is no meaningful recovery in the wider economy and if a second wave of Covid-19 infections begin to sweep through the country during the winter months.

10) Never-ending niches [Source: Stratechery

The internet has taken the world by the storm. It has changed everything. The internet also killed the newspaper business, which was once profitable and growing. Also, what drove the post-war decline in newspaper circulation was the television. Now we get news on the go. And that’s what mobile phones have done. The Internet is the single most disruptive force of our lifetimes because it does not evolve existing ways of doing things, but completely smashes the assumptions underlying them — assumptions we often didn’t even realize existed. So it was with the Internet and the trade-off between reach and time: suddenly every single media entity on earth, no matter how large or small, and no matter its medium of choice, could reach anyone instantly.

The companies that dominated on the Internet were those — Google and Facebook in particular — that made sense of the abundance that resulted. That meant there were three strategies available to media companies looking to survive on the Internet. First, cater to Google. This meant a heavy emphasis on both speed and SEO, and an investment in anticipating and creating content to answer consumer questions. Or you could cater to Facebook, which meant a heavy emphasis on click-bait and human interest stories that had the potential of going viral. Both approaches, though, favoured media entities with the best cost structures, not the best content, a particularly difficult road to travel given the massive amounts of content on the Internet created for free. That left a single alternative: going around Google and Facebook and directly to users.

That raises the question as to what are the vectors on which “destination sites” — those that attract users directly, independent of the Aggregators — compete? The obvious two candidates are focus and quality. What is important to note, though, is that while quality is relatively binary, the number of ways to be focused — that is, the number of niches in the world — are effectively infinite; success, in other words, is about delivering superior quality in your niche — the former is defined by the latter. Infinite niches on as neutral a set of platforms as we can manage makes sense, but by what means do we ensure that people do not disappear into those niches, even if only to decide on how we wish the underlying platforms to be regulated? Perhaps over time it is geography that will follow business model, instead of the other way around; the shift towards work-from-home is a fascinating development in this regard.

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