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Future smart speakers won’t just know what you want — they’ll do your shopping for you

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In the (possibly not so distant) future, your smart speaker might order the laundry detergent that it thinks is best for you rather than that brand you’ve always bought.

As consumers around the world increasingly turn to smart speakers for their shopping needs, companies are looking for new avenues to sell you goods.

They’re betting you won’t want to listen to a laundry list of choices.

That’s why sophisticated artificial intelligence — far advanced compared to what today’s Siri and Alexa can do — will offer a curated, well-researched and short selection based on your needs, wants and desires.

“That makes branding incredibly important, because if you are just asking your device to reorder the thing you’ve got last time, then there’s almost no branding exercise taking place there,” Tom Webster, vice president of strategy at Edison Research, told Day 6.

The first major hurdle to overcome is one already at play in your local supermarket — the private label brand.

Alexa’s choice

Walk into any grocery store and shoppers are presented with hundreds of trustworthy goods that will save shoppers a few bucks — all because they don’t have a brand name label slapped on the front.

Amazon Basics, a line that includes everyday household products from computer cables to kitchenware, is currently the world’s fastest growing private label, according to Niraj Dawar, a marketing professor at Western University’s Ivey Business School in London, Ont.

When you bring someone a skill that they trust and that helps them … it actually changes how people feel about the people behind that brand.-Tom Webster, marketing expert

It’s not inconceivable that Alexa might one day order her own company’s product by default, rather than the Tide you’ve used for years.

That’s the challenge that traditional brands need to overcome.

A large part of marketers’ budgets are already spent convincing buyers to make a trip to their local shop for a specific product, Dawar says.

He foresees a future where that budget will be spent talking directly to consumers through their AI-powered speakers.

Amazon told tech website the Verge that the company has sold 100 million units of their Echo smart speaker. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

In the same way that companies game online searches using keywords to get their product at the top of your Google results, they’ll make sure their paper towel offering is the first listed on your Google Home.

“Ultimately, the choice may still be in the consumer’s hands, and most likely the AI will defer to the consumer,” Dawar said.

“But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the consumer is involved right from the get-go,” he added.

Your insurance broker?

About two-thirds of consumers use smart speakers to play music and check the weather, according to research by Adobe Analytics. Half use them for timers and to check the news, while about 30 per cent will order products online.

Webster says that these relatively simple tasks are “kind of a Trojan horse for everything else that they can do.”

As the devices work their way deeper into our lives, users will rely on them for more complex tasks.

Niraj Dawar, a professor at Western University’s Ivey Business School, says that the AI behind smart speakers will come along way in the next five years.

No longer will they be used just to restock your bathroom. Instead, we’ll ask for advice on things we know little about — like insurance, or which cell phone plan you actually need.

“It’s very likely that algorithms that are embedded in these AI speakers will be able to sift through the noise … and pick the right one based on your calling patterns,” said Dawar.

Offer me skills

More and more users, Webster says, are using smart speakers to reduce their screen time. That means fewer eyes on the visual real estate once guaranteed to advertisers.

Marketers will increasingly present their products in novel ways, he adds. One approach: asking how they can make a user’s life easier.

Johnson & Johnson, the company behind allergy drug Zyrtec, offers the “Allergy Cast” skill on Google Home devices.

The skill doesn’t deliver an ad for the product, but instead offers a branded allergen forecast while building name-recognition of their brand name medication.

“As someone who suffers from allergies, I love that skill,” said Webster.

“When you bring someone a skill that they trust, and that helps them with how they actually live their everyday lives … it actually changes how people feel about the people behind that brand.”

Google Home smart speakers and Pixel smartphones are displayed at the company’s booth during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, in January 2018. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Webster believes the key to building consumers’ trust is building these indispensable skills that users will rely on.

The greatest skill, according to Webster, actually predates the devices. That’s the beloved Butterball turkey talk line.

“You could call up a live human, tell them what you have done to their bird and get some help on how to save it,” he said. Butterball has adapted their phone line for the Amazon Echo — no need to pick up a phone with greasy turkey hands.

“That’s what really adds to people’s trust with these devices.”


To hear more from Tom Webster and Niraj Dawar, download our podcast or click ‘Listen’ above.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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DFO tries to allay fishermen’s fears that protected area would impact livelihood

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The two-lane highway along Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore is dotted with dozens of signs declaring “No Marine Protected Area Here!”

It’s a sign, literally, of organized opposition to a proposed 2,000-square-kilometre marine protected area.

The Eastern Shore Islands area is the first coastal candidate in Canada with an active inshore commercial fishery, albeit a small one with just 150 lobster fishermen. Still, they are a mainstay of the local economy and leading the opposition.

The fishermen fear a marine protected area, or MPA, would automatically lead to so-called no-take zones, barring industrial activities like harvesting.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is moving to put those fears at rest.

“We will not be making a recommendation for there to be a zone of high protection within the MPA,” said Wendy Williams, director of DFO Maritimes Oceans Management.

A “No Marine Protected Area Here!” sign is seen along Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. (Robert Short/CBC)

Last week, the department presented the results of a draft risk assessment to an advisory committee established to recommend what should or should not be allowed inside Eastern Shore Islands.

The committee was created after the department declared the unspoiled archipelago of hundreds of islands an area of interest. It is the first step on the road to designation as a marine protected area under the federal Oceans Act.

The risk assessment concluded the lobster fishery would not harm the kelp beds, eel grass and cod nursery the federal government wants to protect.

“The predominant activity that takes place there is the lobster fishery. It’s a low-impact fishery. It only operates two months a year, so we feel it’s not necessary to have a no-take,” Williams said in an interview.

“We talked to the advisory committee about that and what we heard and unanimously around the table is that they felt the same way. So in our design going forward we will not be incorporating a no-take zone.”

Fishermen seek assurances

But fisherman Peter Connors is not declaring victory.

“You have to remember this is deathbed conversion,” he said.

As president of the Eastern Shore Fishermen’s Protective Association, Connors represents the 150 active lobster fishermen in the area.

He does not trust DFO and is seeking some sort of legally binding commitment from federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson honouring Williams’s promise.

As president of the Eastern Shore Fishermen’s Protective Association, Peter Connors represents the 150 active lobster fishermen in the area. (Robert Short/CBC)

“I want to know the mechanism that he’s going to use and just how he intends to secure that for future generations,” said Connors. “I don’t want a trust me proposition and I don’t want a temporary reprieve … just because they are facing a lot of opposition now.”

Connors acknowledged a marine protected area on the Eastern Shore could help “Canada’s brand” from a marketing perspective. The country has committed to protecting 10 per cent of its ocean by 2020.

‘Give and take’

Environmentalists have watched in frustration as opposition to Eastern Shore Islands galvanized over the prospect of no-take zones.

Susanna Fuller, senior projects manager for conservation organization Oceans North, urged DFO to eliminate no-take zones from the discussion last year.

“Since it has been such an issue of contention, we are hoping that this gives the community and the fishermen a sense that they are being heard,” said Fuller.

“For this process to go forward there needs to be some give and take.”

While DFO has decided to allow unrestricted lobster fishing inside Eastern Shore Islands, Williams said no precedent has been set.

“Every MPA is different. If people have their expectations raised in any particular way because of what we’re looking at now for this MPA, they really shouldn’t. Everything is unique and we need to look at it that way,” she said.

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