The global crisis only amplified retail challenges. Since March 2020, at least 347 US companies cited the pandemic as a factor in their decisions to file for bankruptcy. Among them was Guitar Center, whose executives said its e-commerce sales couldn’t replace the experience of musicians trying out instruments in person. Some businesses are finding new ways to cope— or perhaps come out of the crisis in better shape than when it began. In 2021, it appears many retailers are ready to shift the way they do business.
MIT Technology Review Insights, in association with Oracle, surveyed 297 executives, primarily financial officers, C-suite, and information technology leaders, about their organizations’ plans for big business moves. These include new business models, mergers and acquisitions, and major technology changes, such as automating financial and risk management processes.
According to the research, 83% of executives across industries feel upbeat about their company’s ultimate objective for 2021, expecting to thrive or transform— that is, sell more products and services, or take up new business practices or sales methodologies. Overall, 80% of organizations made a big move in 2020 or are planning at least one in 2021.
The road ahead for retail
The shopping process will be different in 2021, says Mike Robinson, head of retail operations at The Eighth Notch, a tech platform that connects shippers and retailers, and former digital business leader at Macy’s. Among the hard-to-answer questions retailers are asking: “How can stores reassure people that it’s safe to return to congregating in places again? How can consumers trust that the store is doing the right thing from a cleanliness perspective?” Nobody has definitive answers, Robinson points out, but at least they’re asking.
Other special areas of concern for retail organizations in 2021: consumer and e-commerce cybersecurity risks. As cyberattacks get bolder and more frequent, retailers have to contemplate how to protect their data, starting with preventing credit card fraud. While that matters to any consumer business, Robinson says, the data protection challenge has extra resonance for retailers. To offer customers better, more personalized experiences, retailers need to collect more data to analyze, opening them up to more risk of a data breach.
The supply chain—manufacturing, shipping, and and logistics— is also a key issue this year. The strain started showing in 2020, when pandemic lockdowns spread across the globe, exposing weaknesses in production processes and supply chains. And the US-China trade war caused many companies to look beyond China to Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam or Thailand for production partners.
The supply chain isn’t only a financial concern. Robinson says ethical sourcing and manufacturing are becoming more important as consumers raise expectations about sustainability and worker safety. “That’s just going to continue to be more and more important as we move forward,” he adds.
Fortune favors the bold
It’s hard to plan for the long term during times of volatility—but that’s exactly what most businesses across industries are doing: more than half of surveyed organizations will ramp up technology investments in 2021, and 40% plan to move IT and business functions to the cloud (see Figure 1).
In some cases, the 2021 strategic plan is simply to ramp up for more business. Thriving companies that sell treadmill desks or sweatpants don’t need to change their business models. Because of increased demand at a time of heightened remote working, those retailers need only to fine-tune the manufacturing processes and work out shipping logistics.
But adapting to a new world means being open to new ideas. Business leaders ready to transform a company have to rethink everything: business models, product development, marketing processes, fulfilment, and success metrics. As a result, 87% of the organizations that expect business transformations in 2021 have some sort of big move planned.
Robinson believes now is the time to be bold, and retailers are realizing that. “People are going to be rewarded for taking chances and will probably be forgiven if it’s imperfect,” he says. When you are out of the usual options, try the unusual ones.
“Business didn’t stop just because of covid,” says Ashwat Panchal, vice president of internal audit at footwear retailer Skechers. “We’re expanding our distribution centers. We’re increasing our e-commerce footprint. We’re implementing new point-of-sale systems. We’re expanding into new territories.”
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This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.
Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI
Melanie Mitchell, an AI researcher at the Santa Fe Institute, is also excited to see a whole new approach. “We really haven’t seen this coming out of the deep-learning community so much,” she says. She also agrees with LeCun that large language models cannot be the whole story. “They lack memory and internal models of the world that are actually really important,” she says.
Natasha Jaques, a researcher at Google Brain, thinks that language models should still play a role, however. It’s odd for language to be entirely missing from LeCun’s proposals, she says: “We know that large language models are super effective and bake in a bunch of human knowledge.”
Jaques, who works on ways to get AIs to share information and abilities with each other, points out that humans don’t have to have direct experience of something to learn about it. We can change our behavior simply by being told something, such as not to touch a hot pan. “How do I update this world model that Yann is proposing if I don’t have language?” she asks.
There’s another issue, too. If they were to work, LeCun’s ideas would create a powerful technology that could be as transformative as the internet. And yet his proposal doesn’t discuss how his model’s behavior and motivations would be controlled, or who would control them. This is a weird omission, says Abhishek Gupta, the founder of the Montreal AI Ethics Institute and a responsible-AI expert at Boston Consulting Group.
“We should think more about what it takes for AI to function well in a society, and that requires thinking about ethical behavior, amongst other things,” says Gupta.
Yet Jaques notes that LeCun’s proposals are still very much ideas rather than practical applications. Mitchell says the same: “There’s certainly little risk of this becoming a human-level intelligence anytime soon.”
LeCun would agree. His aim is to sow the seeds of a new approach in the hope that others build on it. “This is something that is going to take a lot of effort from a lot of people,” he says. “I’m putting this out there because I think ultimately this is the way to go.” If nothing else, he wants to convince people that large language models and reinforcement learning are not the only ways forward.
“I hate to see people wasting their time,” he says.
The Download: Yann LeCun’s AI vision, and smart cities’ unfulfilled promises
“We’re addicted to being on Facebook.”
—Jordi Berbera, who runs a pizza stand in Mexico City, tells Rest of World why he has turned to selling his wares through the social network instead of through more conventional food delivery apps.
The big story
“Am I going crazy or am I being stalked?” Inside the disturbing online world of gangstalking
Jenny’s story is not linear, the way that we like stories to be. She was born in Baltimore in 1975 and had a happy, healthy childhood—her younger brother Danny fondly recalls the treasure hunts she would orchestrate. In her late teens, she developed anorexia and depression and was hospitalized for a month. Despite her struggles, she graduated high school and was accepted into a prestigious liberal arts college.
There, things went downhill again. Among other issues, chronic fatigue led her to drop out. When she was 25 she flipped that car on Florida’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge in an apparent suicide attempt. At 30, after experiencing delusions that she was pregnant, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was hospitalized for half a year and began treatment, regularly receiving shots of an antipsychotic drug. “It was like having my older sister back again,” Danny says.
On July 17, 2017, Jenny jumped from the tenth floor of a parking garage at Tampa International Airport. After her death, her family searched her hotel room and her apartment, but the 42-year-old didn’t leave a note. “We wanted to find a reason for why she did this,” Danny says. And so, a week after his sister’s death, Danny—a certified ethical hacker—decided to look for answers on Jenny’s computer. He found she had subscribed to hundreds of gangstalking groups across Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit; online communities where self-described “targeted individuals” say they are being monitored, harassed, and stalked 24/7 by governments and other organizations—and the internet legitimizes them. Read the full story.
The US Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. What does that mean?
Access to legal abortion is now subject to state laws, allowing each state to decide whether to ban, restrict or allow abortion. Some parts of the country are much stricter than others—Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kentucky are among the 13 states with trigger laws that immediately made abortion illegal in the aftermath of the ruling. In total, around half of states are likely to either ban or limit access to the procedure, with many of them refusing to make exceptions, even in pregnancies involving rape, incest and fetuses with genetic abnormalities. Many specialized abortion clinics may be forced to close their doors in the next few days and weeks.
While overturning Roe v Wade will not spell an end to abortion in the US, it’s likely to lower its rates, and force those seeking them to obtain them using different methods. People living in states that ban or heavily restrict abortions may consider travelling to other areas that will continue to allow them, although crossing state lines can be time-consuming and prohibitively expensive for many people facing financial hardship.
The likelihood that anti-abortion activists will use surveillance and data collection to track and identify people seeking abortions is also higher following the decision. This information could be used to criminalize them, making it particularly dangerous for those leaving home to cross state lines.
Vigilante volunteers already stake out abortion clinics in states including Mississippi, Florida and North Carolina, filming people’s arrival on cameras and recording details about them and their cars. While they deny the data is used to harass or contact people seeking abortions, experts are concerned that footage filmed of clients arriving and leaving clinics could be exploited to target and harm them, particularly if law enforcement agencies or private groups were to use facial recognition to identify them.
Another option is to order so-called abortion pills to discreetly end a pregnancy at home. The pills, which are safe and widely prescribed by doctors, are significantly less expensive than surgical procedures, and already account for the majority of abortions in the US.