In a fast-moving technological world, science fiction is fast becoming science fact, as Stephen Armstrong discovers
Just how involved in the selling process can technology get? Isaac Asimov’s Multivac and Douglas Adams’ Deep Thought were science-fiction visions of super computers with immense reasoning powers, set to answer the fundamental questions of life.
To date, that’s remained the stuff of sci-fi – IBM’s Deep Blue beat Gerry Kasparov at chess in 1997 and, in 2011, Blue’s successor Watson took on and beat the two most successful players of the US TV quiz show Jeopardy.
Watson is now used by US hospital chain Wellpoint to help diagnose patients and IBM is developing an equivalent for lawyers. IBM believes sales teams are a logical next step. Richard Kenny, managing director of TSA Europe, isn’t so sure.
“Sales is about emotion,” he explains. “No matter how much data a computer can crunch, it’s going to struggle to respond to a customer’s mood or spot those tiny signals on the face that a good salesperson gets instinctively. You need tech that can pick up the signs of lying, guilt and anger.”
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Media Lab are making small steps along that route. They’re developing software that can read the feelings behind human facial expressions – originally designed to investigate autism.
With telepathy chips fitted into the brain, sales staff could download client information mid-conversation
The software tracks 22 points around the mouth, eyes and nose, and notes the texture, colour, shape and movement of facial features. It can tell the difference between happiness and sadness, boredom and interest, disgust and contempt. A commercial version, called Affdex, is now being used to test adverts – developed by a company attached to MIT called Affectiva.
Affectiva is taking this one step further with goggles that can read emotions – again, designed to assist autism sufferers. The sales industry is already excited at the idea of glasses that can read human emotion and tip a sales executive off about their customer’s mood midway through a pitch.
Elsewhere the Kismet robot – the so-called emotional robot, also from MIT – can “feel” anger, disgust, fear, joy, sorrow, surprise, boredom, interest and calm. These emotional states can make the robot behave in certain ways – feeling fear can make it try to get away.
According to futurologist Ian Pearson, Enhanced Reality will be along in the next ten years. “It’s a chip and laser combination that beams information directly into a consumer’s eye – so looking at the high street and wanting a shoe shop might mean that all the shoe shops stand out in bright colours, while everything else is murky. Shops can use this for marketing so you might see shoes dancing on the pavement,” he says.
Mr Pearson predicts Enhanced Reality booths cropping up – small 3D showrooms with a treadmill on the floor that allows you to walk around IKEA- sized emporia without actually stepping more than two feet.
Meanwhile with telepathy chips already in production – chips fitted into the brain that can link to a computer over a wi-fi connection – sales staff could download client information mid-conversation, send follow up e-mails just by thinking about them and even complete financial transactions.
Accelerated chip speeds will mean the negotiation can take place in cyberspace in the fraction of a second, so there’s no need for all that pointless small talk. Unless, of course, you actually enjoy a chat.