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Life After Search – Tomorrow’s Discovery Engines – Tom Cheesewright’s Benchmark 2017 talk

This year’s annual Benchmark Search Conference covered a wide range of topics and Tom Cheesewright, Founder of Applied Futurism Practice, gave us an insight in to where he sees the future of search and what businesses should be doing in order to prepare for the next technological revolution

Tom opened by talking about transactional memory and how we often outsource parts of our brain to other people. We ask them to remember birthdays, or, in some cases there is gender splitting in his house where he remembers some jobs and his wife others. He told the audience that he might take up the role of remembering things such as car insurance but not what time he’s meeting friends or family at the weekend. So this begs the question, why can’t we outsource parts of our brain to computers and machines? Why can’t we get them to remember the things that we need, when we need them and where exactly we can get them from?

He argued that we already do and that, in order to get to the conference or around a city that he didn’t know, he wouldn’t manage without Google Maps, thanks to being born without a sense of direction.

He then argued that we are going to do more and we are going to give more to computers in order for them to assist us. In his role as an Applied Futurist his research suggests that we will outsource more and give machines more control especially over our wallets, which presents a real challenge to people in the search industry.

Tom told the audience that the main question was that if we are going to give away control of our decisions, our selections, our research and our purchasing, then do we in fact search or do we just accept what we are given?

We outsource bits of our brain to machines already – soon they’ll control our wallets, technology is lubrication and full automation is the final expression of this friction reduction.

He told the crowd that we were “A race of toolmakers and that we always have been.

“Ever since the first caveman picked up a rock and used it to stove in the head of whatever animal they were chasing. They did this as it hurt less than using their first. We are toolmakers.

“We use technology to cut friction, to make our lives easier, to make it less painful to do things faster.”

He enthused that we have to think of technology in the broadest sense of the word; that we simply can’t focus on phones and laptops but that we have to look at history. He said that the future was reliant on the past, it is the appliance of science and that it goes back to things like language, meaning that William Shakespeare was in fact a coder.

Looking at the evolution of technology, Tom suggested that it was the lubricant of life and cuts the friction of how we work. He suggested that if we were to visit the science museum opposite the venue and use one on the original computer’s ‘baby’ we’d have to fill in a complex code in order to make it perform a simple task.

Whilst this was revolutionary, people evolved and put more effort into making computers work for us. We then added a screen to computers so that we could point and click, we built in Wi-Fi to replace the ‘dongle’ and then we moved to laptops, tablets and smartphones.

The latest development to flourish in the market was voice technology, where we speak to a device to find out what we need. This all has an impact on those in search as they have to not only keep up but predict future trends.

What’s next?

Well, according to Tom, the next step, (and indeed the dream scenario) is full automation, where we use visuals and augmented reality to hand over the day to day running of our lives.  He looked at the five-step buyer model and how this deals with our need for improved technology and indeed for our future online behaviour.

The first step deals with problem recognition, where you realise that you have a need and that you have an end goal even if you’re not quite sure what it is yet. The research phase is where you then find a solution to that problem. This leads to the third phase where you have more than one solution or product so you cross evaluate them. You then make a purchase decision and ultimately evaluate post purchase.

Tom explained that we initially controlled the entire buying process 

If we look at how technology has changed this however, it is clear that we still need the first stage and the last two. We still make the decision in terms of recognising the need, but a voice search then highlights the information we seek and the list of alternatives. We then make the buying decision, click buy and enter out payment method before evaluation.

According to Tom, voice search is a poor method of research and evaluation so we instead just let it make the choice, meaning we get what we’re given.

Those in search will have to make sure that they are therefore the most returned search for that topic to ensure told like Siri and Alexa choose their product first. In an example he said that a regular buyer of cornflakes has asked Alexa to order more for him and instead of his usual own brand he was left with Kellogg’s cornflakes. As he was saving time in the first place and removing the friction, he didn’t change his purchase and settled for the automated choice, further emphasising the need for brands to rank first.

We have relinquished some control of the process as we develop technologies

Tom told the crowd: “I think that this is going to change, I think that the progress of the reduction in friction means we’re actually going to eliminate the human from a lot more steps in this process.

“We’ll get to the stage where the machine recognises the need, not us. It knows what we want or what we need before we do. It does the comparison based on what we have previously ordered. It makes the buying decision and pays with our stored information and then it evaluates based on how we say that we received the item.

“The next step is visual; we’ll use products like Google Glasses and smart fridges to do our food shopping. Wearable tech will let us open the fridge, see that the milk is low or out of date and then order it accordingly.”

Eventually Tom predicts that the buyers process will be fully automated

If this is to be the case then Tom argues that in ten years we’ll all be spending 10-12 hours a day in augmented reality. The only major hurdle could be social acceptance where we have to learn to live with the fact that we will spend more and more time with cameras on our heads and being filmed by others 24/7. Think of the current craze of in car camera to prove liability in traffic accidents.

On his last holiday, Tom said that the levels of acceptance in technology were apparently, “Everybody either had a drone, smartphone or a GoPro and the beach was shot in full 360 degree, high definition.”

All of this is down to the fact that technology is getting smaller and lower powered and that things such as the number of steps you take in a day can tell how active you are, while heart rate and breathing can suggest mood and health.


So what does all of this mean? Well today the battleground is search. It’s where all of the brands are competing and where most of the expenditure is in terms of digital marketing. In the future we’ll look harder at data and less at the low impact things like toilet rolls and milk are ordered. If we can mirror the EU even when we leave, we can see how data is being used and we, the consumer can take back control of information and processes. Machines will do what we want because although they are in control, we are at the helm, maybe not physically but with our minds and our habits.

Tom’s final point related to an audience question surrounding how much conversation we might have with voice search. He explained that the use of voice search was intrusive and didn’t sit well if you were in a group of people, or using the service on a train or whilst others were watching television. He suggested that it would be more conformational than conversational and that visual search offered us the chance to grab more information and make better decisions quickly.

Key takeaways

  • Currently eCommerce is a human process, but this is about to change.
  • Voice interface is removing the human research element of a purchase.
  • Soon machines will recognise need due to prior inputs.
  • Augmented reality (AR) will eventually become a full time experience.
  • We are increasingly monitored – our steps, sleep, heart rate etc – and this will lead to AI making informed decisions about what we want.
  • While search is the main battle ground in digital now, in the future it may be a battle to compete for the attention of consumer owned (rather than branded) AIs.
  • Brands need to start building their experience and knowledge of AIs to ensure they are relevant when the change comes.

Want to see what the agency behind the successful Benchmark Search Conference can do for your brand? Contact us today, or check out our library of resources. For more Benchmark goodness, all talks and slide decks are now also available on the Benchmark 17 page.

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