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Content Guy's Note: The goal of "The Innovation Conversation" is to explore some facet of the fast-changing, technology-driven retail landscape and how it affects businesses and consumers. It is, we think, fertile territory ... and one that Tom Furphy - a former Amazon executive, the originator of Amazon Fresh, and currently CEO and Managing Director of Consumer Equity Partners (CEP), a venture capital and venture development firm in Seattle, WA, that works with many top retailers and manufacturers - is uniquely positioned to address.

This week's topic: Technology, Innovation And The Nature Of Good & Evil.

And now, the Conversation continues...

KC: It's been interesting to me that automation and robotics have become trending topics, for lack of a better phrase, on MNB lately, with some people advocating it as where the future is, and some real pushback from folks who seem to believe that these innovations only push us closer to the kind of technology-controlled world portrayed in the Terminator movies.

I guess that I have several reactions to this.  One, it is progress, and much as some would like to, you can't stop progress.  Two, that the people who think this is all driven by indolent millennials who don't want to get off the couch and don't want to interact with people, forget that it was baby boomers who created TV remote controls, ATM machines and drive-up windows.  And third, that technology cannot be inherently evil, as some would suggest … it is how people and companies innovate through the use of technology that is either good or evil (though I'm not wild about the use of those terms within the context of this conversation).  I guess I'm wondering how you see this through the eyes of someone highly involved in the whole world of technological innovation, and if your sense is that your community of innovators is aware of this good vs. evil conversation.

Tom Furphy:
Great question. I’m not so sure that innovators in the tech business generally consider the good vs. evil aspect of progress. At least not as a leading consideration.

Good innovators think about the potential user of the technology. They think about problems in that user’s life and ways that technology can solve those problems. They think about opportunities to provide better experiences for users. Ideally, richer experiences than they are getting today. And then, ultimately, they think about the underlying business model to allow the solution to be monetized in a way that recognizes the value created.

That said, we often find ourselves challenging whether a certain solution may go too far. For example, are we gathering too much personal information? Are we personalizing an experience so deeply that it becomes creepy? These are always important questions. And, frankly, the answers change over time as people become more comfortable with technology.

Ultimately, if new technologies are making people’s lives better – saving them money, helping them engage more deeply with people, entertaining them more or, perhaps most importantly, freeing up time – then I’d have to think they fall on the “good” side of the debate. I don’t think technology encourages people to sit on the couch. People that want to sit on the couch will sit on the couch. Heck, Fitbits and apps that track and publish activity have been somewhat effective at getting people moving. I’d like to think that technology that opens up minutes or hours in a person’s day will allow them to pursue more valuable and fulfilling activities. It is technology assistance that allows more time and flexibility to do the things we love and, hopefully, allows us to be better humans.

KC: I think it is fair to describe the US as a nation deeply divided in lots of ways, and I'm beginning to think that - especially because many people tend to think and act in terms of absolutes - there might actually be a kind of mass Luddite movement developing in the US at some point, just because some folks are going to get tired of it all.  I was actually doing some research into this, and saw that the guy who ran the Human Genome Project predicted more than a dozen years ago that "major anti-technology movements will be active in the U.S. and elsewhere by 2030."  Somehow, that doesn't seem so far off to me … and I wonder about the degree to which this is or should be factored into innovators' business models.

If innovators were worried about cultural acceptance of their outcomes, they could never innovate. As I said earlier, the best innovators think about their audience and are focused on solving their problems and/or improving their lives. They may push it too far in the lab or in a limited test. At that point, perhaps, they would opt to hold back the release of the technology until the market was more prepared for it.

Innovators constantly ask themselves “can we do this?” Once they answer that with a new capability, they then can ask “should we do this?” I haven’t seen the second question answered “no”, but I have seen product releases held back over time to allow the market to more readily accept an innovation. But I’m focused on e-commerce. It’s not like we’re messing with the human genome. I’d have to think there’s a lot more consideration in areas like that.

KC: Finally, as I ponder this subject, I find myself thinking that one of the places where real innovation has to take place is in education - in making more of it accessible to more people, in relevant subjects that embrace technological innovation as opposed to looking backwards.  The example I used the other day was that at some point in history, the short-sighted buggy whip manufacturers moaned and groaned about the advent of the automobile … the smart ones taught their whip-makers how to be car mechanics.  Your kids are even younger than mine,  which means that when they get out of college, they'll be facing perhaps an even more daunting set of career challenges than mine are.  What's your sense of where we need to be doing in this area?

Nothing will ever replicate the spark of that personal connection between teacher and student, where the connection inspires the student to reach more deeply inside or reach further outside themselves than ever before. I can’t see any mobile app, software or virtual reality mask enabling that. So there still will be plenty of need for humans in education. But I do see plenty of opportunity for technology to improve the rote processes of education.

Conveying basic information, interactively facilitating the absorption of that information and testing retention and mastery. Most of that can be automated, which would enable education to reach more students at scale, possibly requiring fewer teachers per student. Or, better, allowing teachers to spend more quality one-to-one or small-group time with students.

Also, mobile technologies can prompt students to take their learning process into physical environments, such as museums, landmarks, the workplace, hospitals or anywhere. It again comes back to the notion of technology assistance that we discussed earlier. Use the power of the technology to assist the human through absorption of information, then use it to guide them into physical experiences where the technology can teach and test them along the way. This will set them up for success much better than staying inside the classroom or participating in some sort of unstructured internship.

Ultimately, using technology in expanding ways to drive the educational process keeps technology at the forefront of the student’s world and gives students real-time exposure to the power that technology enables. It shows them how technology can support what is a very human endeavor. It shows them that technology can, and should, be used to improve our lives and our work. It inspires them to constantly ask “How can technology support this experience. How can it make it better, more effective, more efficient, richer or more gratifying”?

We need to teach and inspire students to ask the questions. Technology innovation is not about the answers, it’s about the questions. If we can inspire students to ask the right questions, they will be prepared to take on any challenges they may face as they enter and navigate the workplace.

KC: Good point. I remember hearing a teacher once say to his class, "This isn't baggage claim. It's the departure lounge." That's certainly what I try to do when I'm in the classroom, which I will be in just a few weeks when I start my summer adjunctivity at Portland State University in Oregon ... I think it is m ore important to consider the possibilities than to reach concrete conclusions.

And the Innovation Conversation will continue...

KC's View: