This was actually Microsoft’s tag line back in the mid 1990’s but is now much closer to becoming a reality. Whether we like it or not, more and more companies are using algorithm-based technology to provide more accurate, more personal and more timely services to their customers.
I was reading a piece on the BBC’s web site just last week about how businesses are increasingly using algorithms to understand their customers better and ultimately sell them more.
They used an example of someone being in a shop and a bank being able to use algorithms to figure out that they are in one of their favorite shops but they don’t have much money in their account to buy anything. The technology could identify this as an opportunity to offer the customer a short-term loan.
Whether you like this approach or not (and you have to question the bank’s role in encouraging its customer to buy something!) I think we are going to see more and more of it in the future.
Another good example is Siri, Apple’s voice activated ‘personal assistant,’ knows when you are leaving the house and, by cross-referencing that with the weather forecast, can suggest you take an umbrella with you.
I was talking to an interesting company recently called Cognicor that has developed algorithm-based technology to deal with customer complaint resolution. They believe that call centers waste a huge amount of time, often leading to a great deal of time and frustration before any resolution is reached. Cognicor’s technology allows companies to deal with complaints on-line all the way through to a resolution; and it doesn’t just look at the specific complaint but is also able to cross reference customer history and even their influence over social channels like Twitter and Facebook.
We used algorithms at MessageLabs to identify the probability of an email containing a virus or spam and, in the right applications, I’m a big believer in the concept. I also think that algorithms could and will play an increasingly important role in our lives and that computers should do more of the work that we don’t want to.
Algorithms have been around for years but their use in customer facing services is a more recent phenomenon. The big driver is the combination of the cloud and mobile devices providing huge amounts of open data for algorithms to tap into and also a distribution platform to make their decisions immediately available to the user. In the past algorithms were mainly used more by researchers and academics on big powerful machines working off proprietary data sets. But now, with a computer in our pocket and so much information openly available, the possibilities are vast.
The caveat is that you want to make sure that you have opted in to any service that taps into multiple data sources and that they are completely transparent in the way it works.
Further down the line there is always the worry that too much technology means we stop engaging our brains and also we start to lose some of the individualism and serendipity that makes life so interesting. But I think we are a long way away from all becoming boring robots and I’m yet to see any real evidence to support this concern.
I take the more optimistic line that computers can make us more efficient and free up more time to spend on the things that we really want to do!