09 Jan

CRISPR & Customer Experience; or AI & “Food For Thought” (turnips, no doubt!)

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Decades ago, I was in commercial real estate. I developed (quite accidentally) a specialty in negotiating restaurant leases, so I got to know some restaurant owners very well, and they got to know me. In a couple of client establishments, I would stop by to patronize them and I would tell the owner “Don’t give me a menu, you know me, surprise me and just make something I will like.” I had a favorite Thai Restaurant client—the proprietor was actually from Laos—and I got him a restaurant location in Pickerington, Ohio; a suburb of Columbus. I would walk in and refuse a menu. I would just say “I’m hungry, just make me something good.”  Wow, I miss that place!

In one of my favorite business books, “The Discipline of Market Leaders” Michael Treacy postulates that a company can succeed in one of 3 ways: Operational Excellence (Walmart, FedEx), Product Innovation (Apple, though their age of innovation seems to be in decline), or customer intimacy (He used DHL as an example, but it could be Amazon, Nordstrom’s, or even your long-time barber/hairdresser).

Now bear with me, because this is going to seem unrelated at first. Scientists have developed a revolutionary technology called CRISPR-Cas9/Cas12a Genome Editing. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. Cas9 is a protein, and Cas12a is an enzyme. It isn’t new, it was named “Breakthrough of the year” in 2015 and has been around almost a decade.

What if using your genetic profile and CRISPR, a vendor could engineer a new fruit to be uniquely delicious for your taste buds?

CRISPR sounds like science fiction when you understand what it does. CRISPR allows one to genetically engineer living beings by cutting and splicing their DNA…Now everyone potentially is a genetic engineer. You think I’m exaggerating? You can already buy home do it yourself CRISPR science kits online that allows experiments on bacteria…but CRISPR works on potentially every living thing, humans included. There are a lot of scary ethical, philosophical and scientific concerns, but that isn’t where I am going today.

Last year I was discussing artificial intelligence (AI) with a leader of a global customer experience firm. As we brainstormed on how AI is impacting the discipline of Customer Contact, I asked: “What if a company could, using artificial intelligence, custom create a product for you, one that doesn’t already exist, based solely off what it knows of your needs and tastes?” Suppose a grocery store like Amazon’s Whole Foods can know so much about you that it can recommend new foods the way Amazon recommends books or music based on your preferences and purchase patterns? What if the grocer could blend a spice that their artificial intelligence knows you would love…just like the Thai restaurant chef came to know my tastes and flavor profile (extra spicy, of course)? Good or bad?  Is there a moral or ethical difference between a human like the chef knowing you well and an algorithm knowing you so well?

Researching CRISPR (as a layman, I am no scientist) got me to think: What if using your genetic profile and CRISPR, a vendor could engineer a new fruit to be uniquely delicious for your taste buds? Optimized to please you based on your own unique biology? That sounds like science fiction, and today it still is, but the foundational technology is here now, and completely real.

Do you think this is far-fetched and irrelevant to customer experience? Not so fast. I remember when AI was just a topic for engineers and computer nerds and had nothing to do with “customer service” as we called it in the 1990s. When I got my first high-speed internet connection in that same decade, the notion that it would replace broadcast television or the Blockbuster around the corner from me was beyond the conceivable.

Would it be unethical to use CRISPR to genetically edit a chicken so that it tastes like steak or lobster? What about editing turnips to taste like mangoes?

CRISPR is already promising as gene therapy for genetic defects like sickle cell anemia, and gene based diseases such as cancer. But what about these unforeseen uses? I got my first “cellular” phone in the early 1990s, but now I rarely use it to talk anymore. Instead, I read news, chat with people, take pictures, and order food—but I order food without talking to anyone. My point is that technology more often than not ends up applied far differently than originally conceived.

Let’s imagine beyond my fruit example. Would it be unethical to use CRISPR to genetically edit a chicken so that it tastes like steak or lobster? What about editing turnips to taste like mangoes? If GMO food is already controversial, I can’t even begin to imagine the public debate.

But what about modifying people beyond strictly medical treatment?  A scientist in China was just sentenced to jail 10 days ago for using CRISPR to genetically edit three babies. This isn’t the future, friends. It’s here today.

Scared yet?

Above illustration of a Cas9 protein interacting with a strand of DNA, courtesy of the National Institutes of Health

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