Mark Stephen Meadows, President & Founder, Botanic

Mark Stephen Meadows is an American author, inventor, and designer. With 20 years in VR, 15 in NLP, and 5 in blockchain he has designed and developed artificial intelligence applications at some of the world’s top research labs (Xerox-PARC, SRI, Waag, and others). His role at is as President, where he leads the vision of the company by inventing new methods of computer-human interaction, designing the hearts and minds of highly social avatars and connected devices.

mark stephen meadows

How will improved AI and robotics impact the retail industry in the future?

The systems that we speak with will listen to us. They will understand our habits, our interests, our concerns, our families and will able to predict with a relatively high confidence our next purchase.


I don't know what intelligence is so I have a hard time understanding artificial intelligence, but it seems to be an ability to predict. If that's the case then predicting retail behavior seems a profitable probability.


This, of course, means that our personal information is the fuel that drives commercial artificial intelligence. Facebook M or Google Now are both examples of how personal information is being used to feed artificial intelligence in the advertising space. There are so many tools available for developers that artificial intelligence is not merely converging but exploding into a kind of Cambrian evolution that may see AI residing in the products we purchase, the clothes we wear, how, and when we wear them, and why.


As for robotics, that is a hard one. What is a robot? What is an avatar? These are basically graphical interfaces to artificial intelligence. The very idea of a robot may even be a myth. The best definition of robot I've heard so far is "a beta product." For now, let's think of it as something that is physical and attached to a system that complements or replaces a person.


We currently find factories that are being radically changed by robots and this gives us a vector we can follow because personal computers, in the 1970s and 80s, started there as well. In the 1970s and 80s computers became smaller, less expensive, more powerful and more personal. As a result we all began to use them and they had an increasingly important role in our lives. So, robots will affect retail in much the same degree as computers did. Every aspect of information management, customer management, stocking and selling will be affected by robots. 


We will be able to (and in fact we have developed systems that already can), initiate and close the sales process with natural language. The use case and brands that employ AI systems will be trying to amplify what their sales people can already do and as a result the job of the sales person will be one that is more about personal attention then about completing a function.


VR is already seeing some initial application with several retailers. How do you think this will interact with the application of AI and robotics in the near future?

I know that Oculus is deploying, or beginning to build, conversational avatars. Hololens, the virtual reality platform for Microsoft, will soon be populated with conversational systems. Google also with their new virtual reality push will do the same. Therefore, I see an inevitable future in which virtual reality will be populated with conversational robots. These avatars will be sponsored by corporations, built by hackers, artists, developers … some of them will be like the portraits of 200 years ago, in so much as just the status of having your likeness will be valuable.


So virtual reality will gradually become something, as a child of cinema, which will be interactive and conversational and lay on top of the world we live in today.


Which retailers do you think have most successfully implemented AI in their retail strategy thus far? 

North Face did a pretty good job with IBM Watson. But I think Amazon, with Alexa, have to take the cake. The Amazon Echo system is not only able to listen to what the family is saying all the time (and therefore collect personal data - the fact that it has awake word means it is always listening), but make recommendations on what should be purchased as a result of those analytics. As far as I know Amazon is the largest e-retailer in the world, perhaps second to Alibaba, so they are putting small robotic retailers in our homes today!


How efficient are current AIs that are already in wide use (Siri/Cortana/Google Now) in assisting users with their shopping needs?

Right now I do not find the systems to be contextual enough to provide the help that any of us want. We all have archetypes and roles; those provide us a means of interacting with one another. Part of the problem with systems like Siri or Cortana face is that they have not been designed for a specific use and so as a general tool they are not very sharp. Part of this has to do with the knowledge base, part of it has to do with the design, and most of it has to do, believe it or not, with the personality; we don't know whether Siri is a secretary or a snotty friend.


Where is there still room for improvement?

Personality is the user experience of artificial intelligence. The avatar or robot is the graphical user interface. Artificial intelligence systems need to be developed with specific uses that are very contextual, specific personalities that help us know how to interface with them, and visual presentations that provide multimodal interaction.


In terms of retail, this turns into a very powerful potential especially when coupled with virtual reality in which you can examine something, ask questions about it, and then pay for it all without leaving your living room - as beautiful as it is nightmarish, this looks to be what the coming two to three years holds in store!


About Botanic

Botanic was founded in 2011, allowing machines to adapt to human communication. The company builds conversational characters who act as an interface. They are driven by machine intelligence, understand context and state for task completion, and communicate with personality and emotional intelligence. Applications include: sales: marketing, branding, promotion and transactions; education: training, instruction, coaching; entertainment: video games, interactive books

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