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Bonus: Application Briefs

In the Future:
Breakthrough Applications Briefs
1.      DSL Doorbell

When you ring my doorbell, something unusual happens inside my house – nothing.  Visitors to my house are greeted by a friendly “home receptionist” who happens to be in Peru.  She also does a visual scan and asks how she can be of service.  Depending on who you are and on my prior instructions, she might then send you away, take a message, patch you through to my cell phone, tell you to leave the package on the side porch, or let you in the house.  She even has the option to…ring the doorbell!

 This is my “DSL Doorbell”.  The doorbell itself is a small, easy-to-install device with a button, a display, a speaker/microphone, and a very simple digital camera.  “DSL” is a popular type of broadband Internet service (others include ISDN and Cable), which  provides high-speed, always-on connections to the Internet from your home or office (or car, or beach…).  Most homes in the developed countries now have a broadband Internet connection, and most of those have a Wi-fi signal. Almost all the devices that connect to these signals are still PCs and tablets, but a continuous, high-speed connection to the Internet also opens up many new and interesting service possibilities, the DSL Doorbell being one good example.

 Status:  businesses have used remote visitor screening for years to staff out-of-the-way or after-hours entry control.  Current technology and low-cost workforces should enable firms to offer services just like this one to homeowners, at very affordable prices, in the near future.

2.      Shelf-Help

Perhaps the biggest trend in retail trade in the last decade is the emergence of “superstores” – large, efficient retail stores with low prices and a great selection of products.  Who hasn’t been in a Wal-Mart, an Office Depot, a Target, a Home Depot, or a Best Buy (or, outside the U.S., a Gigante, an Auchan, or an IKEA)? 

 But along with the miles of store aisles and the great prices, it’s easy to get a little lost and it’s often hard to find help, even though most of these stores spend large amounts of money on staff training.  They simply can’t afford to have enough people standing around the store directing traffic and answering questions.  Until now.

 Introducing an application we call “shelf-help”. People (on small displays) located around the world and around the store, when and where you need them.  With store aisle directories, inventory and pricing data, and product installation and use information at their fingertips. Not to mention the loss-prevention benefits of having two-way video on every aisle.

 Status:  You can see crude prototypes of shelf-help today:  in-store telephones, sales associates with iPads, and self-help kiosks.  And many of the big investments required to make this application a full-fledged reality have already been made: the content exists now, and new devices and connectivity options are appearing every week.  So who will be first, The Home Depot or Lowes? Target or Wal-Mart?  We’re waiting!

3.      e-Puppet

Think of it as Kermit the Frog mowing your lawn.  OK, how about Pinocchio with a college degree and a slight Hindi accent?  The truth is, advances in robotic devices combined with wireless Internet connectivity have made possible a new breed of mobile, remote workers.  You can already find “inhabitable” devices that can roam around your house (and beam digital photos of any suspicious activity to you via e-mail), vacuum your carpet, mow your lawn, and operate your household lights, appliances and thermostat. Why not place a trained, intelligent worker in any location that is needed, no matter how small, remote, dangerous, or infrequent the need might be?

 Status:  The devices you can buy today are expensive toys.  But they are also prototypes for what is to come.  Watch this space.

4.      Wearable Prison

The U.S. has more people (and a higher % of its people) in prison than any other developed nation.  Currently, about one and a half million people are physically confined in some sort of correctional facility.  An additional six million are under some form of “correctional supervision” following release from physical confinement.  In addition to the direct costs of caring for these inmates – about $30 billion annually – are the immediate economic costs of aid to their families and the reduction in the available workforce, plus the social costs of family disruption and the long-term dysfunction of individuals who, during their confinement, socialize into a hostile criminal population.

 While most people agree with the need to physically isolate violent criminals (about one in four crimes is classified by the Department of Justice as violent), technology may offer better options to deal with people who are convicted of “white collar” or “victimless” crimes, such as embezzlement, drug possession, or prostitution. 

 “Supervised living” is an alternative to physical incarceration that could save money and improve the effectiveness of rehabilitation efforts.   Trained parole monitors would accompany “outmates” electronically around the clock as they lead productive lives under specific court-mandated restrictions.  Monitoring devices, worn at all times, will be small and rugged, with constant biometric verification that the wearer is in fact the parolee.  Monitors will have continuous visual, audio, biometric and positioning information to ensure compliance with the conditions of parole.  In addition, skilled parole officers will meet electronically with "outmates" on a daily basis to review compliance, set challenging rehabilitation goals, and offer counseling and encouragement.

 Status:  Neither the technology nor the social environment is quite ready for this application today.  Affordable biometric solutions and high-speed, always-on wireless connectivity are a few years out.  But they are only a few years out.  So it is by no means too early to begin the debate about to what extent physical incarceration is synonymous with law enforcement and how aggressively to pursue other tools available to the criminal justice system.

5.      …for the people

The average American spends 28% of her income on taxes, then has to wait in line for an hour to get her driver’s license renewed.  Well, imagine a world where the government of the people, by the people and for the people assigned to you your very own, highly-skilled and trained, friendly government services agent.  She would renew that driver’s license for you, as well as get you a passport, get your child a social security number, help you with your tax return (and give you your refund on the spot), remind you when your property tax is due, help you understand your social security and medicare benefits, or register your kids for school.

You could reach her anytime, by phone, e-mail, fax, voice-mail, or at a kiosk at the mall.  She would complete most tasks immediately – only a few would take more than 24 hours.  She would be prohibited from sharing your personal information with anyone – even her supervisor – without your permission.  And she would save the government – and the taxpayers – money, time and frustration.

 Status:   OK, don’t hold your breath on this one.  But the technology and the economics are already there to make this a reality.  And it is possible for governments to employ teleservices export workers to improve costs and service levels.  A service center in Ghana is already hard at work processing parking fines for the City of New York.  How about it, New York?  Are you willing to show us the way?

6.      Traffic Controller

Permission to run that stop sign late at night?  You got it.  Traffic lights that are coordinated from one block to the next?  Sure, why not?  Intelligent re-routing of traffic to adjust to unforeseen events?  Piece of cake.   100% enforcement of speed limits and parking regulations?  Ouch, but it could be part of the package.   And each of these services would make driving safer and more energy-efficient, and would get you to your destination sooner.

 Status:  Hey, it’s just an idea.  But think about it – someone is going to make a million bucks designing a “smart stop sign”.  It might as well be you.

7.      After School Learning Lab

After-School Learning Labs provide children ages 4-15 with engaging, affordable, individualized learning experiences right in their school facility.  Children learn music and foreign language skills using Internet-enabled devices and a combination of live one-on-one instruction, self-paced courseware, and peer activities.  Parents have a high-quality, affordable alternative for after-school child care.  And schools have access to an easy-to-implement income-generating program that complements the classroom learning experience. 

 Status:  Internet-based music and foreign language instruction services are available today.  In addition, most schools host some sort of fee-based after-school activities, and most schools are connected to the Internet.  What’s really missing to enable teleservices learning labs on a broad scale is a low-cost hardware solution that connects keyboards and simple display units with a classroom server.  Companies such as Yamaha, Casio, Sony and Samsung all have devices or other components that could be leveraged fairly easily to equip these labs.  And since it is a potential multi-billion dollar market, aimed squarely at tomorrow’s IT purchasers, it is probably a good investment!

8.      Senior Services (serving and being served by senior citizens)

One of the fastest-growing segments of the population in countries like Japan, Germany and the United States is the “aging population” – people over the age of 65.  Services that address the special needs of seniors will increasingly attract the attention of investors and entrepreneurs.  The explosion of teleservices export could have a significant role in this market - linking retirees in the developed countries with service agents overseas can actually provide opportunities to both.

 Seniors could offer:

§  Escalation services to assist agents in Service Export Centers in situations they are unable to handle, especially due to a lack of familiarity with local culture, accents, or colloquial speech.

§  Tutoring and practice sessions for agents in language and culture training.

§  A large consumer services market.

 Senior could find:

§  Affordable “in-home” health monitoring and assessments, daily scheduling of medication and physical services, and help to manage budgets and household maintenance.

§  Companion services:  someone to anwer questions, get help, or just have a conversation or play a game with.

§  Opportunities to perform meaningful work from their own home, on a flexible schedule.

 Status:  Senior citizens have been the target of numerous Internet-related ventures, including a few that survived the “dot com” crash.  Watch for applications that include simpler interfaces than PCs and modems (video phones, for example, or WebTV) and links to established service providers with a complementary suite of physical services.

9.      Co-pilot

Your next new car may come with a feature you weren’t expecting: a co-pilot.  A live human being who accompanies you (OK, electronically accompanies you) wherever you go.  She monitors the car’s performance, gives you driving directions and traffic reports, warns you when you’ve made a wrong turn, tells you how to find the nearest gas station or Starbucks, keeps a mileage log for your tax records, reminds you when it’s time to get the oil changed, dispatches roadside assistance, guards the vehicle when you’re not in it, locates it if it’s stolen or even lost in a parking lot (and then lets you in if your keys are inside), and monitors your son’s mileage and whereabouts (even his speed if you want!).  And she’ll also read you your e-mail, take dictation, make a hotel or dinner reservation, check your flight status, play your favorite song, give you personalized, up-to-the minute news, weather and sports, or an update on your stock portfolio.  She doesn’t actually drive the car, though.  Yet.

 Status:  Each of the services described in this concept outline is available today, albeit in many cases separately, and with a hefty price tag.  Enter remote teleworkers, though, and some clever packaging, and we’re off to the races!  So to speak.

10.  My Designer

Spread the word:  one size does not fit all.  We have to get past the idea that design is something that is expensive, embedded and unchangeable.  Design is knowledge work, and workers in developing countries will soon be leading the knowledge work revolution.  What’s more, manufacturers have spent the last decade re-engineering their processes around a concept they call “mass customization”.

 Why shouldn’t you have your very own, custom-designed…

§  diet, reflecting your health goals, taste preferences, budget, shopping habits, and preparation requirements.

§  shoes, that exactly fit your feet, your budget, your lifestyle, your mood.

§  living room, with the theme, the colors, the fabrics and textures, at a price and on a timeline that meets your needs.

§  textbook, with only the chapters you actually need for the course, with additional background material inserted on the sections you struggled with in the prerequisite course, and in the size and format that you choose.

§  PC, with the performance and components you’ll need, already loaded with your favorite software, files, website shortcuts, and configuration preferences.

§  work schedule, that allows you to meet all your commitments on the job and be a soccer coach.  Or to celebrate Thanksgiving in February if you want.  Who says weekends only happen on Saturday and Sunday?

§  benefits package, tailored for your family, your priorities, and your preferred providers.

 Status:  most of the design services described here can be found today in prototype form or in high-end niche offerings.  As Flexible Manufacturing and the new army of remote-worker designers find each other, expect good things to come of it.

11. 24/7 Hello!
How about never again hearing the words "Our offices are currently closed. Please call back during regular business hours...". It makes no sense at all to turn away customers just because the store is closed, especially if you consider that your best remote workforce lives in places that are many time zones away from their customers - their daytime is "after hours", a perfect complement. Add low-cost internet-based telephone lines and always-on cloud-based business software applications, and there's almost nothing standing in the way of continuous coverage for an organization's customers.

Status: answering services have been around for decades, and now the software and web applications are available to anyone around the world. Go for it!

12. LITE Support

Last but not least, a breakthrough in technical support using extremely low-cost workers for real-time help with routine customer problems. LITE stands for "Language-Independent Technical E-support". The "secret ingredient" for LITE support is computer translation. Everyone knows that computer translations are not yet good enough for customer communications. But they are quite good, and when you combine computer translations for issue diagnosis with pre-written solution statements, you can put the new neighbors to work solving the most common customer information needs even when they don't share a language. 

Here's how it works:
1. an organization compiles a list of their most frequent customer issues, and the solution for each one.
2. the list gets translated into as many customer languages as desired (this work done by the new neighbors, naturally)
3. the organization contracts with a LITE support provider almost anywhere in the world and provides training on the list, in the language of the support agents
4. when a customer inquiry comes in (via email or chat, in the language of the customer), it gets translated by the software into the language of the support agent, who makes a quick determination if a) the machine translation is "good enough" to diagnose the problem, and b) if the customer's problem is on the list.
5. if so, the agent selects the appropriate response (in her/his language) and the customer is sent an email or chat message (a pre-written solution in their language), without ever knowing that the person on the other end didn't actually speak their language.
6. if not, the agent routes the inquiry to an escalation support center with deeper technical expertise and specific language skills.

Status: Each component of LITE support is in place, but to our knowledge no one has deployed it on a broad scale. In our tests, we demonstrated feasibility of the translation quality and identified several businesses where the top 50 customer issues accounted for over 80% of customer inquiries. So the math works.