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Are we at Minority Report yet?

The degree to which data can anticipate consumer behaviour is jaw-dropping. At times, it starts to feel a little like Minority Report. You remember the film? The Tom Cruise vehicle explored the idea that when certain ‘pre-cog’ humans were fed enough data they could anticipate crime before it happened, allowing police to arrest people before they did the deed.

Amazingly, for marketers this scenario has virtually come to pass. That is, contemporary marketers are availed of tools that will now reliably outperform the kind of ‘gut feel’ intuitions of the best marketing old hands of yesteryear.

The truth is, the world of data and technology is starting to make the world feel a bit more like Minority Report than many are comfortable with. But it’s my view that these tools at our disposal make digital engagement smarter, better and more human.

Predictive analytics

Remember what Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix famously told Sky News?

“Today in the United States we have somewhere close to four or five thousand data points on every individual. We model the personality of every adult across the United States, some 230 million people.”

That’s some data set – and plenty has been written about that particular agency’s role in the 2016 US presidential election. However, beyond influencing voters and connecting with shoppers, powerful data sets of this nature are also being used for social good.

Georgia State University is famous for pivoting its student services into predictive analytics, with incredible results. In 2012 they began gathering real world data on all aspects of student behaviour – anything from hours spent logged into the library system, to the distance they travelled to campus. Models were created that raised an alert when a student showed signs of possible future failure, which would then trigger one-to-one coaching by staff (rather than arrest, like in Minority Report).

Using this approach they saw:

  • A 103 percent increase in African-American graduations
  • A zero ethnicity gap in achievement: Georgia State is the only US university at which African American and Hispanic students graduate at a higher rate than white students (by approximately one percent)
  • A 7 percent lift in four-year graduation rates overall
  • $18 million in tuition fees saved by students (due to faster graduation)

Voice biometrics and sentiment analysis

Most marketers are aware of the arms race currently playing out around smart speaker market penetration. To date, Amazon is ahead in the hardware battle, with 31 million smart speakers sold in the US alone. Apple and Google have the lion’s share of the virtual assistant market, thanks to their established base of smart phone and watch users, as well as their own home hub sales.

So does that mean home voice shopping will become the next big marketplace? Well, yes – but that’s not necessarily the real play. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, derived 86 per cent of its US$33 billion revenue from advertising in Q418, and we should expect that focus on ad revenue to continue as the technology of voice analysis becomes more sophisticated.

After all, the richness of the data that voice shopping puts in the hands of marketers is hard to overstate. Sentiment analysis performed on consumer voice samples will allow advertisers to reach their audience in real time based on how they feel at any given moment, which will become a truly powerful way to engage.

And not all of the opportunities will be tied up by the likes of Amazon, Google and Facebook – nor restricted to marketing firms. Consider, for example, the possibility of detecting anxiety patterns in teen voice data before they manifest as illness. Or of digital assistants in the complex work done by speech language therapists. The health industry alone represents a huge market; commercial opportunities in biometric data are already being explored by the likes of University of Auckland’s Augmented Human Lab.

Facial recognition

Facial recognition is another great piece of Minority Report tech. One scene shows Tom Cruise’s character on the run, his eyes replaced by a back-street surgeon to avoid detection – which is exactly the kind of nightmare scenario Werner Vogels wants you to forget.

The Amazon CTO spearheaded a major PR push in June for products including Rekognition, the firm’s plug-and-play facial analysis service. And while of course there are headlines (and movie scenes) that focus on the product’s potential for abuse, there are already many impressive use-cases in play.

One non-profit firm, Thorn, uses the service to rescue sex-trafficked teens by scraping web content for their faces. Listerine supported a product launch by creating a phone app that helps blind people detect smiles. There’s even a website called FindingRover that helps you find your lost pets using animal face recognition – a product that’s easy to dismiss as cute and fluffy, until you appreciate that US pet owners are expected to spend $202.6 billion on their animals by 2025.

Looking back, it’s amazing that it took just 15 years for Minority Report to seem more documentary than science fiction. Certainly the pace of change is accelerating, and you hardly need precognition to know that the future of business will be as exciting as it is fast-paced.

Darren Kirkland is the managing director of krunch.co, a digital consultancy started in July 2015 and based in Auckland. We take a multidisciplinary approach to digital transformation, helping brands blend data, tech and content to change the way they engage with their audiences. Read more on our website.

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