The metaverse, marketing, and neurotech – a match made in a dystopian nightmare

In an era where privacy has been steadily eroded, the one sanctuary that most of us have held on to is the privacy of the thoughts within our heads.

But it seems even this last redoubt might soon come under siege. Because while for centuries now psychics have claimed the ability to read minds, now we are making this capability real, thanks to rapid development in the field of neurotechnology, and specifically, the creation of brain computer interface (BCI) devices.

But once more it seems the pace at which we can develop new capabilities is going to outstrip our ability to consider and manage the consequences.

So what is a BCI? Put simply, it is a device for sensing and interpreting the signals of the brain. Where common neurotechnology devices such as MRI scanners can determine what parts of the brain are active at any given time, a BCI device can determine what the brain is actually doing – or more specifically – what it is thinking.

The detail and accuracy of BCI devices is astounding – down to the level of individuals words. A trial of a BCI device in 2021 on a person who was paralysed and non-verbal saw them use an implanted BCI device to communicate at a rate of 18 words per minute at 94 per cent accuracy. While the techniques used suggest there is still some want to go to true mind-reading (this example focused on imagined muscle control), this is another step along a seemingly inevitable pathway.

Today the capabilities of BCI devices greatly depends on the proximity they can achieve to the neurons they are trying to sense, with the best results achieved using implanted devices where electrodes are inserted under the skull, such as in the example described above. Good results have also been achieved from devices implanted under the scalp, and even wearable (non-invasive) devices are showing promise.

Exactly how accurate these wearable devices will prove remains to be seen, but given their use is mostly unregulated (especially as they are not ‘medical’devices), there is a good chance that a lot of investment dollars will be keen to see how finely their resolution can be tuned (Elon Musk certainly seems keen).

But the implications of BCI technology go far beyond giving speech to the speechless. Creating a devise that enables one party access to the thoughts or another has massive implications across many aspects of life.

Take marketing for example. Not only might a marketer be able to see through the difference between what a person thinks and what they say, but they could also be able to pick up on signals and make suggestions based on thoughts that a person might not even be aware of. This would be a much more accurate form of contextual advertising, based on evidence rather than inference.

Whether any individual might be willing to submit to constant mind surveillance by their favourite brand is unlikely – although with the right incentive, not impossible. However, there is one scenario where BCIs are likely to play a major role – the metaverse.

One of the key barriers to truly immersive virtual reality experiences is the control interface, which must use hand and body gestures as proxies to control actions within the virtual world. Using a BCI however means a person might only have to think about ‘running’ in a specific direction, or about picking up an object, or any manner of other interactions, for that thought to be translated into an action in the virtual world.

How much of a stretch is it to go from monitoring a participant’s commands to interpreting all of the other data that the BCI is extracting?

One immediate application is contextual advertising, and the ability to present a brand at the precise moment when a person is thinking about that product category.

For content platforms, whose job is to keep people engaged, the BCI can be used to present content which has been determined as being most likely to garner a response at that moment in time. Given the furore that erupted when Facebook was shown to be manipulating people’s moods through the content it showed them, it is not hard to see the possible harm that might result.

Or what about for an online casino, which now knows exactly what it needs to offer to keep a player engaged and spending?

While none of these possibilities are viable with the BCI technology available today, at the current rate of progress, this decade is the one where the boundaries will be tested – not some distant and unforeseeable future.

So what will the world look like when not even the thoughts in our head are ours alone?

If you’re interested in learning more about the technical, legal, and ethical challenges of neurotechnology, then please come along to the second Neurotechnology Forum, taking place in Sydney on May 17.

CMO – How to include disabled communities in marketing

Disabled Australians eat fast food, wash clothes using laundry powder, and even drive cars. But looking at the people used to promote these products in advertising shows not a single disabled person in sight.

The tendency towards only featuring able-bodied people in advertising might be defended based on the law of averages (as the average Australian person is not likely to be visibly disabled), but this runs against the spirit of inclusivity that many brands preach. It also ignores the reality that one in six Australians have a disability.

In this article for CMO Australia I had the chance to explore the topic of representation for disabled Australians in mainstream advertising, and speak to some of the marketers that are working to bring greater representation to a diverse group of Australians.

You can read more by clicking here.

Neurotechnology – testing the limits of intelligence, ethics and the law

Amidst all the discussion regarding generative AI brought on by the release of ChatGPT and its cousins, another intelligence-based technology may well have an even more profound impact on human life.

Like AI, neurotechnology is a field of research which has existed for many decades, and which has also made some fundamental leaps forward in this decade. Chief among these have been breakthroughs in the use of electronic sensors to detect and decode human thoughts, opening new possibilities for direct control and communication with digital systems, and unleashing a plethora of moral and ethical considerations.

For example, in 2021 researchers demonstrated a system which implanted neurotechnology into a person who was paralysed and non-verbal, and which enabled them to use this brain control interface (BCI) technology to communicate at a rate of 18 words per minute with up to 94 per cent accuracy.

Such technology holds enormous promise through providing new communication options to those who can’t speak, or command and control capabilities to those with limited physical ability, or perhaps one day to give sight to the sightless. This technology can also enable a range of sensations in remote communications, such as bringing a sense of touch or smell to interactions within virtual worlds.

Importantly, these are not possibilities of a distant future – some are being tested today – and as interest and funding grow, so too will the speed of the breakthroughs.

But while the underlying technology promises incredible benefits, it is not hard to imagine less savoury use cases, such as the delivery or novel forms of coercion, or for extracting information and confessions from alleged criminals or political dissidents.

The rapid emergence of neurotechnology and its implications for ethics and the law was the key focus of a world first seminar hosted by Jewelrock in Sydney in December 2022 and supported by the law firm Baker McKenzie. During the session numerous global experts on neurotechnology discussed recent breakthroughs and the implications, highlighting the enormous work required to understand and prepare for the future that neurotechnology will deliver.

A second seminar is now planned, as part of a series that will continue through the year and into 2024.

I was fortunate to be invited to write the official report for the event, which you can find by clicking here.

While the true impact of neurotechnology is hard to fathom, one thing is clear – while artificial intelligence may have the spotlight today, we have barely scratched the surface when it comes to technology’s impact on human intelligence.

Storytelling with Intent: Making promises to gain and retain audience attention

Every professional communicator wants something from their audience, but how do you ensure the transaction isn’t just one way?

I want to take a couple of minutes share a technique that might help you better engage with audiences and get you to an outcome you and they are happy with.

Firstly, I need you to think about every act of communication as a transaction. Whether you are communicating for personal or professional reasons, you are always seeking something from the people you are communicating with, even if your goal is simply to retain their attention.

Of course, when communicating for professional purposes you are usually wanting something more – most commonly, the opportunity to change the way people think, feel, or behave.

So if you want to achieve this outcome with your audience, then isn’t it fair that they should get something in return?

Looking at communication in this way can feel reductive, but people’s time is valuable, and their attention should be rewarded.

Unfortunately, presenters are often guilty of taking someone’s time while giving them nothing of value in return. This a common outcome in advertising, where brand owners know that large segments of the audience will have no interest in what they have to offer, but are nonetheless willing to run the risk of annoying these people, thanks to their belief that the segments who are interested will make their investment worthwhile.

It’s a mistake that’s also committed in conference presentations – especially in those sessions where a sponsor has bought time on stage and is determined to use it to drive their message home, regardless of whether anyone in the audience wants to hear it. In these scenarios audiences often have very low expectations of what they are about to hear – especially when the presenter/author is not a known entity.

The same mistake is also committed frequently in whitepapers, media interviews, and other forms of communication – the result being that no one is reading what’s been written or listening to what’s being said – let alone having their thinking, feeling, or behaviour changed.

So how then can you not only engage people’s attention, but retain it through to the point where they have heard, seen, or read everything you want them to hear?

One way is to make them a promise – a promise that they’ll care about deeply enough to hold you to.

Next time you’re developing a whitepaper or presentation, think about not just want you want from the audience, but what the audience might want from you, and then make that promise explicit from the very beginning. In short, make them a promise upfront that they’ll want you to keep.

Doing this effectively requires a few things to have happened first. For starters, you’ll need a clear understanding of your audience and what it wants – and hopefully, that is something you can deliver.

Making a promise they’ll want you to keep does several things to help you get your message across. First, it ensures you have their attention from the outset. Second, it sets an expectation that makes it clear you are personally accountable for what follows. And third, should you deliver on your promise, you’ve given the audience another reason to remember what you’ve said, long after you’ve said it.

Should you fall short, the worst outcome is usually that they’ll briefly mark you down for failing to meet expectations and then promptly forget about you – an outcome no worse than if they had not paid attention in the first place. Alternately, while you might not deliver exactly what you promised, because you have their attention you can deliver other points of value, and potentially offset their disappointment.

This technique is not rocket science, and it is a common attribute of sales-related presentations. This doesn’t mean that it can’t be used in other engagements, even when you are not wanting to drive audience members to a conversion outcome. Even so-called thought leadership presentations are still driving towards an outcome, and that outcome can’t be achieved if you haven’t gained and retained your audience’s attention.

Making a promise sets an expectation, and gives audience members an additional reason to listen to what you have to say. It does mean taking a risk, but given you are asking the audience to take a risk by listening to you in the first place, it is a risk you should be prepared to take.

I mentioned at the start of this post that I wanted to share a technique I’d found useful for maintaining an audience’s attention during presentations. That was my promise, and hopefully I’ve delivered on that.

The fact that you are still reading to this point tells me that (hopefully) you have.

Bridging the digital divide in 2021

If you are reading this blog, then there is a good chance that the Internet was one of the key tools that helped you cope with the events of 2020. While Australians sheltered inside through the lockdowns (and in some parts of the country, continue to) we turned to the Internet in record numbers to buy groceries, order food, stay connected with friends and loved ones, and entertain ourselves. The Internet also provided the lifeline that enabled many people to keep working even when they couldn’t get to their offices, and was vital for ensuring that kids could stay connected to their schools.

As frustrating as the COVID crisis has been, imagine what life would have been like had it happened in 2000, when much of Australia was still offline, and those who were online were struggling with dial-up Internet speeds?

Now consider that here in 2021, approximately 2.5 million Australians are still not online. That’s 2.5 million people who are not buying groceries online, or watching Netflix, or Zooming their friends and family. That number also includes an unknown number of people who were not working from home last year, and most concerningly, a lot of children who were not participating in online education.

As much as we might take the Internet for granted these days, for some Australians it is still expensive (both in terms of access costs, and the price of devices needed to connect to it), and for many, hard to use. There are many reasons why a person might be one of the 2.5 million, but principle amongst them are their economic situation, age, educational background, physical ability, and digital skill level.

And as more and more of Australian society moves online – and takes our social discourse into online platforms – the less of a voice this group has in social debate.

We call this the Digital Divide, and while it is a topic I remember writing about in the mid-1990s, it is well and truly present in Australia today.

Thankfully, there are organisations out there who are committed to closing this Divide, many of whom are represented in the membership of the Australian Digital Inclusion Alliance. It’s also been heartening to see that some commercial organisations are also starting to realise the extent of the Digital Divide, and begin looking at it as both a social obligation and a commercial opportunity.

Recently I had the chance to check back in on the state of Australia’s Digital Divide, and the work that is being undertaken to bridge it, through my writing for CMO. Click here to read the complete article.

Emerging jobs in data science and AI – a webinar for Monash Tech Talks

There is a common fear that accompanies the emergence of almost every new technology that its introduction will put someone out of a job. While this is undoubtedly true in some instances (modern sewers put the nightsoil collectors out of work, for example), what is also true is that new technologies also create new jobs.

We can see this in Australia today, where the digitalisation of the economy is creating shortages of related skills, especially in fields such as analytics and cyber security. And while even some of these jobs will eventually be automated, it is highly likely the new skills will be required along the way.

The key question then for any individual that wants to have a long and interesting career is to ask what these new jobs will look like, and what skills will be needed to perform them.

I recently had the pleasure of putting this question (and many others) to a panel of experts for the Monash University Tech Talks series. I was joined by the Director of the Centre for Learning Analytics at Monash (COLAM), Professor Dragan Gasevic, along with Digital Architect and Advisor Rita Arrigo, and the Head of Service Delivery at the Silicon Valley-based AI company SKAEL, Ragu Mantatikar.

Together we discussed how are AI and data are being used across different industries, whether AI will really replace jobs, what new jobs are emerging from our world’s obsession with AI and data science, and what skills professionals need to gain to future-proof their careers.

If you want to watch the replay, you can find it by clicking here.

New presentation stream – Beyond COVID-19, and why we are a long way from reaching the ‘new normal’

We can’t yet begin to accurately estimate the impact that COVID-19 will have on the Australian economy or our society, nor can we realistically guess at what 2021 will hold. With much of the economy being propped up by stimulus payments, and the threat of the pandemic likely to linger in our consciences for many months yet, there are simply too many variables in play to allow anyone to accurately model the behaviours and outcomes we will see in 2021.

But there is nonetheless plenty we can do to prepare for what lies ahead. The strategies for managing crises are well known, and there are plenty of signals we can examine that will tell us at least what lies on the near term horizon.

This week I had the opportunity to explore some of these themes in a presentation for DXC, as part of its webinar Adapting to customer channel disruption during a crisis. Hosted by the Director of Customer Experience at DXC Oxygen, Marco Formaggio, and with fellow guests including BGW Group Services’ General Manager David Dean and Suntory Frucor’s Fernando Battaglia, we discussed the importance of investing in both people and technology as a means of delivering great experience.

The need to deliver great experiences for customers is unlikely to diminish any time soon, even if our ability to invest comes under pressure through having to tighten spending during the looming post-COVID recession. One possible outcome is that the next six months will provide the impetus many consumers will need to switch brand loyalty to better value options. We are already seeing consumers holding back spending, and more of their purchasing journey now will start and end through digital channels. All of this tells us we need to think differently about customer experience, brand value, and customer journeys. It is also possible that the post-COVID world will lead to the emergence of new customer segments and new behaviours. Managing through 2021 will require a fine balance and some careful planning as to where investment dollars can best be deployed, and that means that having a strong capability to sense the state of the market and the intentions and moods of customers.

The rising preference for great experiences has been a common theme for B2B and B2C organisations alike over the past decade. But providing the best possible experience under normal circumstances just won’t cut it in any more. Great CX is not about what an organisations delivers in the main – it is about what that organisation does to step up when things go wrong. That is where the strongest relationships are formed, and right now, there is a lot that can go wrong.

I was the third presenter in this webinar, and my contribution starts around the 30 minute mark. It contains a snapshot of a much larger body of work I’ve been compiling as I’ve been discussing strategies for 2021 with numerous organisations – something that I’ll be building out over the next few months.

One thing is certain – for all the talk of the ‘new normal’, we are still many months away from reaching what might be classed as a steady state for the Australian economy. The current post-pandemic period is the artificial creation of government stimulus spending, and we have no idea what life will be like once that is wound back totally in 2021.

What we do know is that for most organisations there is plenty of hard work ahead, despite their workforces already being fatigued by the events of the past six months. But by investing in people, building a sensing capability, and giving themselves the best possible opportunity to make the right investment decisions, they will be able to find ways out of this.

Unfortunately from an economic and societal perspective, things will get worse before they get better, but they will get better. Just how well positioned an organisation is for those better times depends greatly on the work it does today.

Virtual presentation training now available

Pic by Oscar Keys

I’m pleased to announce that my virtual presentation training session is now available (for virtual delivery). Running for 90 minutes, the virtual course is based on my own experiences in presentation delivery and training (both physical and virtual), along with extensive research into the fundamentals of good online delivery.

More information can be found here.

How to achieve virtual experience success – CMO

With physical meetings, training sessions and conferences all around Australia being cancelled, service providers are scrambling to reinvent them as online experiences. But running a successful online event takes more than just a webcam and a microphone. If you’re looking for advice on how to host an effective online expereince, you might want to check out some of the tips from industry experts in my story for CMO.

I’ve also switched over my own communications and presentation training seessions to be conducted virtually, and am looking forward to starting deliver to clients next week.

Why a ‘why’ beats a ‘what’ and a ‘who’ for building engagement

Pic by Evan Dennis

Why are you here?

When it comes to public communication, it’s one of the most fundamental questions we can ask ourselves. And I don’t mean in the biological or spiritual sense. I mean, why have you shown up in the first place?

It’s a question your audience is probably asking itself as well – why have you shown up? And why should they listen?

But it’s a question that seems to get forgotten in the rush to talk about the ‘what’ and ‘who’. Knowing why you have shown up is the central thread that sews everything else together – it is the landmark you use to navigate through your communication. When you offer up something that doesn’t help you achieve your goal, you risk wasting time – yours and the audiences. Hence always knowing why you are there becomes critical.

There is another ‘why’ that should take primacy however in all communication – and that is the ‘why’ that the audience is asking. Why should they give up their time to listen to you in the first place?

Quite often, your ‘why’ and their ‘why’ won’t immediately match up. I see this frequently in the technology sector, where the ‘why’ of the communicator might be to sell more products, but there is a good chance that the audience doesn’t want more products – they have plenty already.

They might want is a solution to a problem. Or an insight into a desirable future outcome. Or something else that that will make their lives better.

The gaps between ‘what’ and ‘why’ can be summed up in the difference between two words – ‘want’ and ‘need’. Because there are a lot of things in this world that are needed rather than wanted.

Take accounting for example. It’s quite likely that there aren’t that many business owners who really ‘want’ an accountant. What they want is to stay compliant with tax law, or to better manage their cashflow, or to invest wisely for the future. But in most instances, they need assistance with that, and hence an accountant is ‘needed’.

The same thinking applies in the technology sector. When a technology provider focuses on what they do, rather than why anyone would want it, a disconnect opens up.

Take cloud computing for instance. It is likely that there aren’t that many business owners who really want cloud computing (it’s equally likely that many of them also don’t want to be running computers on-premises). What they want is a powerful, reliable and flexible computing environment that enables them to better perform that tasks that are essential for running their business. They want a means of ensuring their technology does not prevent them from responding swiftly to changing market conditions or hold them back from new opportunities.

The ‘why’ – business flexibility – is much more meaningful than the ‘what’ that delivers it.

Hence when someone commences communicating by only considering their ‘why’ – to sell more of something – they immediately disconnect from the audience. But when they take into account the needs of the audience, magical things happen.

By articulating that you understand the problems, challenges and concerns of those listening to you, you immediately build rapport. You demonstrate concern and understanding and cease to be someone who is selling down to them, but rather appear as someone who stands alongside them and knows their pain.

It is a fairly basic concept, but one that is frequently forgotten in the rush to talk about the latest new thing (the ‘what’) and the organisation or person that will make it possible (the ‘who’). What you are offering and who you are should always be secondary to the ‘why’ of the audience.

Considering the ‘why’ of the audience and what they really want earns permission to talk about the ‘what’ and ‘who’. It also creates a means of aligning your ‘why’ (build brand awareness, change behaviour, sell more stuff, etc) and placing it into a context that the audience will respond to.