Dubai International Airport will replace ID checks with a facial recognition aquarium

Dubai Airport, Technology, Facial Recognition, Innovation
Photo: Satish Kumar for The National

In a world in which people are increasingly willing to trade privacy for convenience, facial recognition seems to be a new frontier. And the foremost pioneers on that frontier now appear to be the folks at Dubai International Airport.

Airport officials plan to install a virtual tunnel-shaped aquarium equipped with 80 supposedly invisible cameras that will identify passengers as they walk through, in lieu of customs agents looking from your passport to your face and back. The first aquarium will be up and running by the end of next summer, according to The National. Emirates customers will be the first to experience the tunnel, but the airport plans to install more until 2020.

Facial recognition is popping up at more and more airports as a way to streamline the process of identifying passengers ahead of boarding, and it has its conveniences. You don’t have to remember your passport or driver’s license or other forms of ID, and the lines will theoretically move more quickly because people don’t have to stop and wait for an official to check those IDs.

Dubai’s aquariums seem to be taking the relaxation idea to a level no one else has thought of, but the aquariums serve a purpose other than to calm passengers as they head to their planes.

“The fish is a sort of entertainment and something new for the traveler but, at the end of the day, it attracts the vision of the travelers to different corners in the tunnel for the cameras to capture his/her face print,” Obaid Al Hameeri, the deputy director general of Dubai residency and foreign affairs, told The National.

The National reports that travelers will be able to register their faces at kiosks, and those scans will presumably be matched up with what the aquarium-tunnel cameras pick up as you pass through.

If the cameras determine you are who you say you are, you’ll get a green light at the end of the aquari-tunnel. If not, you’ll get a red light, and an official will likely conduct extra screening of some kind.

It’s not clear what Dubai airport officials will do with these face scans after they have them. Do they keep them on file, assuming you’ll return? Do they share this information with government officials in the United Arab Emirates? How about with officials in other countries?

And face scans are just part one of a two-part plan. Soon, these aquariums may also have cameras that scan your irises. Just remember that when you’re looking at all the pretty fish.



The Future of Writing Instruments

Writing Instruments, Writing, Marketing
Image Credit:

By Jennifer Billock
Published in Counselor

When Melissa Ralston, marketing director at BIC Graphic North America (asi/40480), thinks about her ideal writing instrument, she imagines a multifunction pen with a highlighter and a ballpoint. Luckily for her, that pen already exists – along with an increasing amount of seemingly space-age features on other pens across the market. For example, we can already write in 3-D, with a pen similar to a hot glue gun, that draws objects and words with a piped out plastic medium.

“Writing, in many ways, is an experience,” Ralston says. “People all have their favorite types of writing modes; it’s an extension of their preferences and their unique styles.”

As technology improves, consider the places writing instruments could go. Maybe one day, we’ll even have a pen that picks itself up and writes what you said without a single touch of your hand. The possibilities are endless – and some could be here sooner than we think.

Writing Trends
Over the past 10 to 15 years, technology has touched every part of the writing instrument – even down to the ink and what it falls on.

“There’s always a time when you write that the ink sits on top of the paper, no matter how good the ink-tip combination, no matter how good the paper,” says Joe Fleming, president of Hub Pen (asi/61966). “In the last 10 years especially, there have been developments in the chemistries of ink that have made the absorption power of the ink tremendously better, so the ink gets sucked up into the paper really quickly.”

The result? “You can have a really heavy ink lay down without the fear of blobbing or smearing or the left-handed problem of getting ink all over your hand,” Fleming says.

David Goldfarb, product manager for the writing instrument category at Evans Manufacturing (asi/52840), and Ralston both note this is due to special hybrid inks that are in continual development. These inks are a combination of gel and ballpoint ink, so they get the smooth lines of gels and the quick drying time of ballpoints.

“Pens have always been exciting, and the sexy part of the pens has always been the writing quality,” Fleming says. “If you’re writing on paper, the key is going to be the ink-tip combination. I really can’t see pen-to-paper going away any time in the near future. It’s always going to be about the ink-tip combination until we change the substrate of what we’re writing on.”

Writing instruments are also becoming more multifunctional by the day, even without the benefits of so-called “smart” digital pens.

“Pen manufacturers are combining more features in pens including screen cleaners, styluses, flashlights and phone holders,” Goldfarb says. “They are becoming multifunctional tools at an affordable price.”

He notes that some pens even have charging banks for other devices – a development that likely arose with the advent of smart pens that can also digitize what you write, record audio and store files. Smart pens are following their own line of evolution as well. Eventually, suppliers expect they’ll be more universal and able to work with any device, along with incorporating an increasing amount of applications and tools like screen cleaners and USB drives.

Other innovations on the way for writing instruments cover different parts of pens: the barrel and plunger style. “Some of the new features starting to emerge for writing instruments include illuminated imprints, new textures such as soft touch and additions found on the top of plungers, including spinners or cartoon heads,” Goldfarb says.

Ralston sees the same progress, pointing to an increase in the amount of requests for full-color imprints on pens, along with other special options that require research and development.

“We work with our customers, suppliers or engineering to experiment with new decoration techniques, barrel enhancements, ink systems and grip materials,” she says. “Technology has penetrated many industries including the pen industry, so manufacturers are designing pens to keep up with the changes. Every year, as we review our writing instrument product development, we work with our supplier and designers to develop the next best thing.”

In 2017, one of the unique things manufacturers have begun offering is a light-up pen barrel. A logo is laser-engraved onto the barrel of a pen, and when the plunger goes down, it activates a small battery inside that triggers a light, illuminating the logo.

As a testament to how quickly technology changes, Fleming says that eight years ago, Hub Pen tried to create these, but it didn’t work because the batteries were too small and didn’t have enough power to make it a consistently lit-up pen. The company didn’t introduce any at the time. But now, batteries have gotten smaller and last longer so Hub Pen was able to introduce a line, and business for them, Fleming says, is booming. But there’s still a ways to go with the product.

“No matter how good the batteries are, they’re still very small batteries,” Fleming says. “The logo has to look good whether the light’s on or off. That’s where some experimentation is in order, to make sure you have the right substrate and the right paint or lacquer, so when people are unable to activate the light because the battery’s gone out, it still looks good.”

Overall though, the main issue in the evolution of writing instruments, Ralston says, is something the promotional products industry struggles with on a daily basis: the speed at which it adapts to the new technology.

“When I think of the next best pen, a lot of it is adapting to what’s going on externally outside of our little world of pens,” she says. “We need to be prepared to follow the trend of what the next big thing is to make sure we have that application available on our pens. It’s just thinking differently about how we market them and how we can adapt quicker.”

And we should never stop dreaming about what that future writing instrument might be. Technology changes daily, and knowing what to expect is near impossible.

“You look at sci-fi on TV and in books,” Fleming says, following a trip to Hong Kong where he saw an incredibly realistic hologram. “It’s not too much of a jump from a holographic image to writing in the air and transferring information that way so you don’t need a substrate. That would be the next big leap. I can’t see it happening any time soon, but I never expected to see a holographic image that fooled me, either.”

The Persistent Pen
So will pens and writing instruments ever go out of style? Not likely, suppliers say. They’ve been a staple in society for so long that even though people are potentially writing less down, the trusty pen perseveres – plus, according to studies, handwriting improves cognitive development and sparks creativity.

“The writing instrument is over 6,000 years old,” Ralston says. “It will continue to evolve with time, as history has shown us, but never become obsolete. The existence of our recorded history and literature depends on this relationship between paper and pen and we don’t see that ever going away.”

Cavemen first picked up sharpened rocks or pieces of metal or bone as writing tools, carving pictures into cave walls. The ancient Chinese, Babylonians, Sumerians, Greeks and Romans did the same, using pointed objects to carve into everything from turtle shells to wax tablets. But they were faulty, with the carvings fading away after a time.

And so each evolving culture developed their own form of ink, made from organic materials like berries and minerals, alongside the invention of parchment and papyrus. From there came the reed pen, an early form of the quill pen developed around 700 AD. Around the 16th century, in a revelation that would lead to the modern-day pencil, people discovered they could use graphite to write. Metal pen nibs arrived in the 1800s, sparking the invention of fountain pens, the design of which was patented in 1827. The first ballpoints came in 1888, followed by the mechanical pencil in 1906, felt-tip pens in 1910, gel pens in 1984, and now, digital smart pens.

“There’s not a day that goes by that people don’t use pens,” Fleming says. “And it’s going to be like that for the foreseeable future. It’s a low-cost item with daily use. There may be a slight decline, but it’s so ingrained in society that unless something radical happens, you’ll still need pens every day.”

Additionally, writing instruments are just good business. Go anywhere during the day and you’re likely to see a cup full of promotional pens, free for the taking. Look around your desk right now and see how many you have – maybe one from your dentist, the local bank or a tourism company. It’s an easy way for a brand to promote itself, and sales numbers prove it. The category remains one of the five largest in terms of promo product market share.

“Writing instruments continue to be popular, have a strong re-order rate, are inexpensive with a high impression rate, and are appreciated when received,” Goldfarb says. “There is still a big upside to using pens as an advertising tool.”

Fleming agrees, noting that with Hub Pen’s new line of light-up pens, sales are up more than 50% for the group.

“Pens are the new matchbooks,” he says. “They’re everywhere. They’re inexpensive and they’re a good medium for carrying a message. For our industry I think they’re terrific.”

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The I’s In Innovation

Innovation, Ideas, Invention, Business

The I’s In Innovation
By Kym Gordon Moore

When you hear mention of the word innovation, what comes to mind? Technology? Biometrics? Virtual reality? Androids? Data mining? Holograms? Wearable devices? Driverless cars? Let’s face it, innovation is nothing new, but it has become our sizzling buzzword of the century. Not to be confused with the word invention, innovation provides better solutions for a market’s unstipulated or existing needs.

In order to survive in today’s business climate, regardless of how large or small an organization is, or what industry they are in, the creation of new internal processes, new products, new additions to service offerings or overall business structures is vital. Innovation can refer to creating something new (an idea, method or device) or changes made to an existing product.

These 8 essential components will help you stay on target of your innovation strategy:

1. Ideas: Abstract concepts, mental representational images that you have in order to create, expand or reinvent your product or service for your organization.

2. Imagination: The creative ability to visualize, form, transform and integrate those ideas into functional products or solutions.

3. Inspiration: The process of learning through visual thinking or divine influence by moving intellect to motion and emotion.

4. Investigation: Discovering, studying, gathering or inquiring information and resources to produce an end-product for your users.

5. Identification: To recognize and establish your idea or invention into quantifiable and qualifiable opportunities and benefits to market your product or service.

6. Investment: A monetary, educational or time asset that will provide productivity for future profits and growth development of the organization.

7. Integrity: Ethics in all aspects of business practices influences the culture of attracting new customers, increases loyalty among current employees and affects the organization’s reputation in relationship building with stakeholders, business partners, and suppliers.

8. Influencer: Those individuals or influences (e.g. testimonials, reviews) who make a positive or negative impact on decision-making by potential buyers. Opportunities in your marketing activities, social influence, the power of persuasion, the collective teamwork of employees and other external interactions impact advocacy and promotion.

Innovation entails disruptive thinking, passion, putting your plan into place and unwavering perseverance, while delivering an excellent customer experience, by meeting their needs and making a difference in their lives.


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Blaming the Millennials? Really?

Millennials, Blame, Accusation, Commerce
Image source: Dawn Hudson

By Kym Gordon Moore
(Opinions in this commentary is based strictly on the author’s viewpoint)

Let’s face it, times are very different than they were a decade ago in every aspect of the word. Everything is changing whether we want them to or not. Adaptability to such change is never easy peasy for anyone. I continue to read a number of interesting articles and posts where there is a lot of finger pointing directed towards the Millennials. All too often the collapse of many current processes and industries has been unfairly dumped on them which were already systematically set up for eventual failure decades ago.

As a Baby Boomer, what was important and valuable to me growing up has been modified to the current generation of consumers. Millennials absorb and digest differently from the way we did at their age. The same happened with us compared to the times of our parents’ rearing. Even in the midst of some extremely turbulent events, we tried to adapt accordingly.

Yet as I read many articles arguing and blaming the collapse of once thriving industries on the Millennials, I have to cringe a bit. First, let me touch on education. We want our children to do better and excel further than we have, but with the exorbitant student loans that our young people face upon graduation from college and are unable to find a job that will pay enough to live, as well as, pay back their loans, it is nearly impossible to survive. I believe student loans at this point should be forgiven, because such an expense, even as it is reflected negatively on their credit report, will definitely affect if and how they purchase a vehicle, a house or even start and be able to support a family.

Much blaming and finger pointing is directed towards individuals who are facing difficulty and hardships as a result of many failed systems that no longer work in this current climate. There is no innovation in such cryptic and archaic processes because if there was a concerted effort made, the blame would not be directed at one specific group. To solve such dilemmas so they can fit our current times and trends has become slow and painful, just to carve out time to sit down and discuss how to quickly change broken systems.

We have our platforms on suggestions for innovation, adapting to artificial intelligence, inbound marketing, deep learning, business intelligence and such. I think all too often, we are so endowed in policies, procedures, and politics so stringently, that we forget how to feel, how to love and what it is like to be human.

As a leader, we seek to find new solutions and common ground by merging the changing of consumers to industries of the past. The last thing we need is to send consumers sailing over the edge of a cliff with the mindset to dictate, divide and conquer based on systems of the past. Clearly, how is it possible to invite and engage these new generations of consumers who will eventually replace us, if we are unable to effectively offer practical products and services, and then communicate with them sufficiently?

Before casting blame, perhaps we need to understand what the problem is, why the situation is the way it is and then move forward to solutions that would be beneficial to all.  Even die-hard veterans in the business have to look at the big picture with a new set of glasses. Any thoughts?

Fab Cab is LCCC innovation on wheels

With receiving freshly printed copies of a Stocker Arts Center 2017 brochure, Tracy Green, vice president of strategic and institutional development at Lorain County Community College, speaks passionately Aug. 15, 2017, about new developments at 1005 N. Abbe Road in Elyria. Carol Harper — The Morning Journal

A maker space on wheels rolls out in the form of a Fab Cab this school year from Lorain County Community College.

The Fab Cab is a mobile Fab Lab destined for Scout meetings, libraries, civic groups and school clubs throughout Lorain County, said Tracy Green, vice president of strategic and institutional development at LCCC at 1005 N. Abbe Road in Elyria.

The Fab Cab is one of many innovations introduced this month as LCCC continues a tradition of introducing locally cutting edge trends academically.

School starts Aug. 28 at LCCC, Green said, adding the crew enjoyed a great Jack Nicklaus golf outing Aug. 14 to raise money for scholarships.

Cindy Kushner, director of marketing and outreach initiatives at LCCC, said she is excited about the opportunity to talk about the first bachelor’s degree at the community college.

The Bachelor’s of Microelectronic Manufacturing meets a need of companies in Northeastern Ohio, Kushner said.

“And right now we have a wonderful associate’s degree we’re recruiting students into,” Green said.

The education stream follows a “learn and earn” model, Kushner said, with a student in class a couple of days a week, and working for an employer in the field and applying what they learned a few days a week.

“It’s very well received by students and employers,” she said.

The college is working with about 20 different companies across the region, such as Synapse Biomedical in Oberlin and Core Technology in Avon, Green said.

“It involves engineering technology jobs,” she said. “They’re working with companies that are making their products what we call, ‘smart.’

“So they’re embedding sensors. There are many, many sensors like what is in that phone. They’re taking those same types of sensors and they’re putting them into new products that can communicate and provide data outside of them.”

Examples are medical devices, workout equipment or athletic gear, Kushner said.

“It’s across the board,” she said. “It’s really everything.”

It’s a pretty significant movement, Green said.

“Now they have sensors embedded in running shoes so you can tell when you should be changing your shoes,” she said. “It will look at any type of wear and tear on the shoe and the stability of the insole, everything is becoming customized and providing data to the consumer so they can make decisions about when they should buy a new pair of shoes.”

“I used to be excited when they would light up,” Kushner said.

“Now they’re talking to our iPhones,” Green said.

The available labs limit starting the class to 12 students a semester for this stream.

Green said when she started her career, she had no idea it would lead to preparing students for these and similar innovations.

“Every day I wonder, ‘What’s going to happen new today?’” she asked. “Everything is different every day.

“You can’t even describe careers now because you have to be able to work across many different areas.”

So, LCCC built a new Campana Center for Ideation and Invention on the south edge of campus, with more new developments to add soon.

“Talking about cutting edge and innovation,” Green said. “When you’re talking about a career, sometimes it’s not working for someone else; it’s working for yourself and creating an entrepreneurial path. We have expanded our Fab Lab significantly. So someone can take that idea and turn it into a product and then get support working with our entrepreneurship program to be able to turn that product into a business.”

That’s what LCCC is excited about, Green said.

“Particularly as you talk about the next generation, we see that movement of folks who prefer to be their own boss, to be an entrepreneur themselves and to grow their own company,” she said. “It’s the ability to give them the tools and the resources to do that.

“Within that building, you can come in and you can design a new product on the computer. Using software you can view it in 3-D form in virtual reality, then go from that concept to a printed part using additive manufacturing and be able to hold that product in a matter of hours.”

Tech savvy can happen any time, but often starts young.

Kushner said she works a lot with students from kindergarten through grade 12.

She said she envisions a grandparent bringing a grandchild to the college to work on a project together.

“We have some very exciting programming for K-12 students that is going to inspire that entrepreneurial spirit in that world of making,” Kushner said.

Soon, the college will take the Fab Lab on the road through the Fab Cab, Green said.

“We can take that to a classroom, to a Girl Scout meeting, community libraries and have that experience out in the community and hopefully, have them come in and use the Campana Center,” Kushner said.

It fits inside a van, Green said, so it’s portable.

“On the partnership side, I’m really excited about the Master’s of Business Administration, the MBA,” Kushner said. “It’s with Lake Erie College. We have a good group — I think there’s room for a couple more — we have a nice group starting this fall on their Parker MBA through Lake Erie College in the Painesville area. They are just wonderful.”

And a new associate degree of Applied Science in Cyber and Information Security will enable students to prevent breeches in Internet access, and viruses, Green said.

For example, they would learn how hackers steal credit card information, and how to prevent hacker access, she said.

Not a new development for LCCC but possibly new information for Lorain residents, Kushner said, are two LCCC learning centers in Lorain.

One learning center is across from Lorain City Hall at 201 W. Erie Ave.

The other center is at Lorain High School at 2600 Ashland Ave.

“There’s confusion at the Lorain High School site,” Kushner said. “It’s for the community, not just for the high school.”

People in neighborhoods around Lorain High are welcome to take college classes there, she said, adding there are college programs designed for high school students that are not open to the general public.

Those are separate programs.

About 35 percent of high school seniors in Lorain County are graduating with some LCCC college credits, Kushner said, adding that’s “substantially higher than the rest of the state.”

“One other really cool thing is our support of veterans,” Green said. “We’re recognizing their knowledge and skills as they come back to civilian life.”

Veterans can access a fast track to civilian careers as paramedics, EMTs, technicians or other areas.

“They have already had a lot of that training,” Green said. “How do we help them translate that into a civilian career?”

Recently, LCCC released a new season schedule for the Stocker Arts Center, Green said.

“While we focus on students, we also know we are the community’s college,” she said.

5 things everyone gets wrong about artificial intelligence and what it means for our future

Artificial Intelligence, Technology, Business, Innovation
The humanoid robot AILA (artificial intelligence lightweight android) operates a switchboard during a demonstration by the German research centre for artificial intelligence at the CeBit computer fair in Hanover March 5, 2013. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Luis Perez-Brava, MIT Innovation Program

Artificial Intelligence, Luis Perez-Brava, Innovation
Luis Perez-Brava is a Research Scientist at MIT’s School of Engineering. Alex Kingsbury

There are a lot of myths out there about artificial intelligence (AI).

In June, Alibaba founder Jack Ma said AI is not only a massive threat to jobs but could also spark World War III. Because of AI, he told CNBC, in 30 years we’ll work only 4 hours a day, 4 days a week.

Recode founder Kara Swisher told NPR’s “Here and Now” that Ma is “a hundred percent right,” adding that “any job that’s repetitive, that doesn’t include creativity, is finished because it can be digitized” and “it’s not crazy to imagine a society where there’s very little job availability.”

She even suggested only eldercare and childcare jobs will remain because they require “creativity” and “emotion”—something Swisher says AI can’t provide yet.

I actually find that all hard to imagine. I agree it has always been hard to predict new kinds of jobs that’ll follow a technological revolution, largely because they don’t just pop up. We create them. If AI is to become an engine of revolution, it’s up to us to imagine opportunities that will require new jobs. Apocalyptic predictions about the end of the world as we know it are not helpful.

Common confusion

So, what may be the biggest myth—Myth 1: AI is going to kill our jobs—is simply not true.

Ma and Swisher are echoing the rampant hyperbole of business and political commentators and even many technologists—many of whom seem to conflate AI, robotics, machine learning, Big Data, and so on. The most common confusion may be about AI and repetitive tasks. Automation is just computer programming, not AI. When Swisher mentions a future automated Amazon warehouse with only one human, that’s not AI.

We humans excel at systematizing, mechanizing, and automating. We’ve done it for ages. It takes human intelligence to automate something, but the automation that results isn’t itself “intelligence”—which is something altogether different. Intelligence goes beyond most notions of “creativity” as they tend to be applied by those who get AI wrong every time they talk about it. If a job lost to automation is not replaced with another job, it’s lack of human imagination to blame.

In my two decades spent conceiving and making AI systems work for me, I’ve seen people time and again trying to automate basic tasks using computers and over-marketing it as AI. Meanwhile, I’ve made AI work in places it’s not supposed to, solving problems we didn’t even know how to articulate using traditional means.

For instance, several years ago, my colleagues at MIT and I posited that if we could know how a cell’s DNA was being read it would bring us a step closer to designing personalized therapies. Instead of constraining a computer to use only what humans already knew about biology, we instructed an AI to think about DNA as an economic market in which DNA regulators and genes competed—and let the computer build its own model of that, which it learned from data. Then the AI used its own model to simulate genetic behavior in seconds on a laptop, with the same accuracy that took traditional DNA circuit models days of calculations with a supercomputer.

At present, the best AIs are laboriously built and limited to one narrow problem at a time. Competition revolves around research into increasingly sophisticated and general AI toolkits, not yet AIs. The aspiration is to create AIs that partner with humans across multiple domains—like in IBM’s ads for Watson. IBM’s aim is to turn what today’s just a powerful toolkit into an infrastructure for businesses.

The larger objective

The larger objective for AI is to create AIs that partner with us to build new narratives around problems we care to solve and can’t today—new kinds of jobs follow from the ability to solve new problems.

That’s a huge space of opportunity, but it’s difficult to explore with all these myths about AI swirling around. Let’s dispel some more of them.

Myth 2: Robots are AI. Not true.A worker guides the first shipment of an IBM System Z mainframe computer in Poughkeepsie, New York, U.S. March 6, 2015. Picture taken March 6, 2015. Jon Simon/IBM/Handout via REUTERS A worker guides the first shipment of an IBM System Z mainframe computer in PoughkeepsieThomson Reuters

Industrial and other robots, drones, self-organizing shelves in warehouses, and even the machines we’ve sent to Mars are all just machines programmed to move.

Myth 3: Big Data and Analytics are AI. Wrong again. These, along with data mining, pattern recognition, and data science, are all just names for cool things computers do based on human-created models. They may be complex, but they’re not AI. Data are like your senses: just because smells can trigger memories, it doesn’t make smelling itself intelligent, and more smelling is hardly the path to more intelligence.

Myth 4: Machine Learning and Deep Learning are AI. Nope. These are just tools for programming computers to react to complex patterns—like how your email filters out spam by “learning” what millions of users have identified as spam. They’re part of the AI toolkit like an auto mechanic has wrenches. They look smart—sometimes scarily so, like when a computer beats an expert at the game Go—but they’re certainly not AI.

Myth 5: Search engines are AI. They look smart, too, but they’re not AI. You can now search information in ways once impossible, but you—the searcher—contribute the intelligence. All the computer does is spot patterns from what you search and recommend others do the same. It doesn’t actually know any of what it finds; as a system, it’s as dumb as they come.

In my own AI work, I’ve made use of AI whenever a problem we could imagine solving with science became too complex for science’s reductive approaches. That’s because AI allows us to ask questions that are not easy to ask in traditional scientific “terms.” For instance, more than 20 years ago, my colleagues and I used AI to invent a technology to locate cellphones in an emergency faster and more accurately than GPS ever could. Traditional science didn’t help us solve the problem of finding you, so we worked on building an AI that would learn to figure out where you are so emergency services can find you.

By the way, our AI solution actually created jobs.

AI’s most important attribute isn’t processing scores of data or executing programs—all computers do that—but rather learning to fulfill tasks we humans cannot so we can reach further. It’s a partnership: we humans guide AI and learn to ask better questions.

Swisher is right, though: we ought to figure out what the next jobs are, but not by agonizing over how much some current job is creative or repetitive. I would note that the AI toolkit has already created hundreds of thousands of jobs of all kinds—Uber, Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, and so on.

Our choice is continuing the dystopian AI narrative about the future of jobs. or having a different conversation about making the AI we want happen so we can address problems that cannot be solved by traditional means, for which the science we have is inadequate, incomplete, or nonexistent—and imagining and creating some new jobs along the way.

Luis Perez-Brava is the head of MIT’s Innovation Program and a Research Scientist at MIT’s School of Engineering. He recently published ‘Innovating: A Doer’s Manifesto for Starting from a Hunch, Prototyping Problems, Scaling Up, and Learning to Be Productively Wrong.’  

Open Innovation is Alive and Well in the Pet Industry

Pets, Innovation, Business
Image Source: Getty Images

By Stephen Key
Co-founder, InventRight      


It is an incredible time to be a product developer. Like solving problems? Enjoy being creative? Today, you do not have to start a business to launch an idea into the market. You can go the licensing route and begin receiving passive income for your creativity instead. That’s the beauty of open innovation, the increasingly widespread practice of companies looking outside their own walls for the best new product ideas. By licensing your idea to a company that has existing distribution and relationships with retailers, you can get to market fast. In that way, as a business model, licensing simply cannot be beat. Innovative companies recognize this — even ones with a long and storied history of research and development like GE.

The pet industry is particularly ripe for open innovation and licensing. According to the American Pet Products Association, 68 percent of U.S. households own a pet today. That’s a lot! Last year, Americans spent a record $66.75 billion on their beloved companions. During the recession, the industry barely took a hit. Thanks to the Internet, dogs and cats are more popular than ever. And there’s the well-documented trend occurring worldwide of young people increasingly referring to and treating their pets like surrogate children. There’s a huge opportunity here for people who are creative.

Which is why I traveled to the annual pet trade show SuperZoo in Las Vegas earlier this week to ask companies explicitly: What do you need from us? After licensing many of my own ideas for products, I know what open innovation looks like in practice. But since I’ve made it my mission to help other people license their ideas, I’m committed to going one step further. The show is not as large as the Global Pet Expo in Florida, but it was very well-attended, light-hearted, and a lot of fun. How could it not be, with dogs of different shapes, sizes, and colors running this way and that? Turns out, people who love their pets like to have a good time. The theme this year was “Better Together,” which spoke directly to the inclusive nature of the industry at large.

As is typical, some companies were receptive to open innovation and others weren’t. You can tell which are and which aren’t pretty easily. Companies whose products all share the same beautiful design aesthetic? Not a good fit. These companies aren’t really innovating. Their focus is on designing products that are extremely pretty to look at. Their in-house designers are tasked with creating the look and feel they want their brand to reflect. These companies do not look at outside submissions. They’re more likely to acquire a brand outright or bring in a designer they like to keep working with them.

But I also met CEOs like Tim Blurton of Hyper Pet LLC who embrace open innovation emphatically.

“We love inventors and people with ideas. And we love being able to work with them and take their ideas and make them marketable, so we both benefit,” Blurton said. “Bring us any ideas you’ve got! We’ll listen and see if we can work on them.”

For Dr. Steven Tsengas of OurPets, intellectual property is of paramount importance. His company has something like 170 patents to its name. Electronic pet toys are increasingly popular, he told me, as he pointed out several products of his that make use of Bluetooth technology.

For companies like Ethical Products Inc., which has been in business since 1952 and markets its products under the brand SPOT, working with inventors is a way of life. Ausra Dapkus, the vice-president of purchasing and product development who is in charge of working with product developers and inventors, described her role in the following way.

“I take their ideas and then communicate them to our factories overseas to bring those products to life,” she explained. “I try to translate their vision into something that can actually work in production, which can sometimes be a challenge… but somehow we always manage to work it out.”

At the Ethical Products booth, professional inventor Chuck Lamprey showed off one of his licensed products. (Full disclosure: I know Chuck because he was my student.) Since he began developing pet products seven years ago, Lamprey has since licensed about nine of his ideas, all of which are still selling on the market. At first, he told me he struggled to make a good first impression at trade shows because he’s shy. But in time, as his knowledge of the industry grew, he became much more comfortable approaching booths.

These days, he’s confident because he know he adds value. He walks up to companies he wants to invent for and says something along the lines of: “Hello, my name is Chuck. I have many products in the marketplace. If you have needs in a particular area, I would love to help you out.”

This year, several CEOs explicitly thanked him for stopping by and expressed how much they appreciated that he was paying attention to the industry and actually inventing for them.

“Repeat trade show attendance is very useful in that way. They get to know me and that I’m serious about this,” he explained. “What I want to do is add value. It’s not about me and it’s not even about the company. It’s about the consumer. What can I give to the industry?”

His attitude is spot on. You cannot merely submit your ideas for new products to as many companies as possible and hope for the best. Becoming a professional independent product developer is all about communication and the relationships you build. That’s why attending a trade show can be so effective. You’re able to introduce yourself face-to-face and shake hands.

But some of the companies I interviewed were frank with me. In principle, they loved the idea of open innovation. In practice, they were frustrated. They’d become wary of working with inventors because so many of them failed to do their homework. The ideas these companies had received didn’t take their brand into consideration whatsoever, so they had decided to stop looking at outside ideas altogether.

The benefits of open innovation are enormous, but sifting through submissions takes time. So does getting back to product developers about why their ideas aren’t a perfect fit, which is a crucial part of the process. When companies decide their limited resources are better spent elsewhere, we all lose out.

If you have an apple and the company you show your idea to is selling oranges, that’s not a good fit. Most likely they are not going to be interested. And in that case what you’re sending is basically spam.

There’s a balance to be struck. Licensing is very much a numbers game. You need to contact enough companies about your idea, not just the major one or two players. At the same time, firing your sell sheet off to every single company in an industry isn’t going to get you very far.

So please, check out the websites of each company on your list of potential licensees. What are they all about? Can you tailor your sell sheet to better fit the needs of their consumers in some way? (Sometimes this is as easily accomplished as using a different color.) Remember, there are actual people reviewing your submissions at these companies.

Many people were honest with me about the fact that selling pet products has fundamentally changed. Between Amazon and other online retailers, brick and mortar sales are simply not as important. Savvy Internet retailers like the startup, which was recently acquired by PetSmart, offer better customer service. Before you show your idea to a company, investigate how it sells its products. If you don’t understand the retail landscape, you’re at a disadvantage.

Some companies were very clear with me about letting inventors know they could already be working on something similar, which is why they won’t sign a non-disclosure agreement right away. That’s perfectly reasonable.

Like always, I kept my eyes out for simple products, which are my favorite. I was not disappointed. Catit’s Flower Fountain water bowl is the best-selling cat accessory toy on Amazon, I was told. It’s a compact water fountain with a flower design on top that enables you to adjust the flow of water to your cat’s liking. Simple, very cute, and with smart packaging to boot: By cutting out a few pieces, the shipping box is transformed into a toy. If you own a cat, you know how much they adore playing with boxes.

This is an exciting industry to invent for, truly. Who doesn’t love pets? Open innovation in the pet industry is a win for all of us.

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