Your Memorial Day Weekend Road Trip Just Got More Expensive

If you’re hitting the road this holiday weekend, buckle up for the highest gas prices in several years. AAA’s website reports that the national average price of regular unleaded gas has climbed to $2.96, the highest level since late 2014. (Of course, some parts of the country are already paying quite a bit more. The national average encompasses a wide range of prices.) A year ago, the price at the pump averaged a much more wallet-friendly $2.37 per gallon, according to AAA.

And prices probably aren’t done climbing. Last month, I warned that the national average was likely to reach $3 this spring. That likely will hit Memorial Day weekend. Crude oil prices continue edging up, but such increases generally don’t reach the pump until a week or two later. Continue reading “Your Memorial Day Weekend Road Trip Just Got More Expensive”

What Businesses Should Do With Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) improves prediction. AI is computer software that learns, finding complex patterns in massive amounts of data. Improving predictions is obviously very useful for most businesses, with a wide range of applications. For example, AI is helping industries from manufacturing to air travel predict when key equipment or airplane parts will fail, reducing downtime. A servicer of printers and copiers can determine when they will run out of toner, based on how many and what types of print jobs are done. The machines will automatically order more just-in-time toner, preventing waste from replacing toner cartridges too early. Google Translator AI “predicts” (recognizes) equivalent speech in different languages. In all of these examples, the AI gets better as it takes in more data, or “learns.”

But businesses can throw a lot of money at AI simply because it’s the “in” thing. So, owners must improve the odds of success.

First, figure out what problem you want AI to solve. What mission critical information are you dying to know? The problem may not require a solution as complex as AI. Basic snags could simply require statistical analysis, such as linear regression. Another key question to ask yourself: Has AI ever been used before for that application? If not, then being the first may be a tad costly. Run small experiments to determine usefulness before committing to a massive project.

Second, do you have good data to work with? Remember the GIGO principle: If the data are old, unstructured or disjointed, then you’re not going to get good results, period. And you need a lot of data—AI is only useful when it has much to work with because its whole purpose is identifying complex patterns in large data sets. Thousands of data points are a minimum, and millions are best. Also, your data needs to be labelled so a machine can understand what it is. Provide the context that is creating the data from the start so that the AI doesn’t make a boneheaded mistake, such as treating Christmas-time sales as the normal monthly level.

Third, AI learns or evolves with experience in real world operations. It will be wrong at first. So, does the application allow room for growth, or is it so important that it has to be right the first time? AI cannot be perfected solely based on in-house training data.

Fourth, AI requires development—there is no AI “plug and play.” It is unlikely that a company has the expertise to do this in-house. So, finding the right contractor that has the specific knowledge for a particular problem is important. Trusting the contractor is key: AI programs are not very good at explaining how they got their results, so you’ll have to take the contractor’s word for it. Have your experts examine vendors’ results and evaluate both their accuracy and usefulness. Today’s main AI platforms are IBM’s Watson, Amazon Machine Learning (part of Amazon Web Services), Microsoft’s Cortana Intelligence Suite, and Google Cloud Platform. (A website listing a plethora of specialized AI vendors follows below.)

Finally, don’t relegate AI to the IT department. AI will boost worker productivity, but it can also shed light on what lines of business strategy to choose, so CEOs should be fully informed.

Some AI vendors worth a look:

https://appliedai.com/vendors/1

Applications:

Health care: https://www.techemergence.com/machine-learning-healthcare-applications/

Finance: https://www.techemergence.com/machine-learning-in-finance/

Advertising and marketing: https://www.techemergence.com/artificial-intelligence-in-marketing-and-advertising-5-examples-of-real-traction/

The Housing Market Will Get Even Tighter This Year

More folks are eager to buy this year, but the supply of homes for sale just isn’t big enough. Competition for listings figures to be fierce for the rest of 2018. Still, some signs of relief are starting to appear.

The market is still plagued by too few homes for sale – the legacy of the construction bust that followed the bursting of the bubble a decade ago. Fewer homeowners are inclined to sell when they know finding a new place could be tough. The supply of homes is constrained because residential construction has been weak for years. As inventory levels of new homes fell in most markets, homeowners who wanted to trade up became concerned that they wouldn’t be able to find what they wanted if they sold their home. Instead, many stood pat and invested in home improvements. New listings of existing homes fell, making it more difficult for first-time home buyers to find something. Continue reading “The Housing Market Will Get Even Tighter This Year”

What Car Shoppers Need To Know This Year

If you’re in the market for a new ride or might be later in 2018: You’ll find better deals on popular SUVs and crossovers…new or used…if you wait a bit. Manufacturers continue to ramp up SUV and crossover production, so that supply of these popular vehicles may soon outstrip demand. Also, while vehicle sales are off to a good start so far this year, they’re likely to slow later, forcing automakers to rely more on discounting and other buyer incentives. These should approach $5,000 per vehicle, on average.

Given the popularity of SUVs and crossovers, manufacturers are offering more models than ever before, including luxury models. Car-based crossover SUVs are especially prized for their blend of size and practicality. Plus they’re relatively fuel-efficient, so the return of $3 gas won’t ding their popularity. As a result, manufacturers are cutting back on their car models. The Chevy Impala is likely to be cut, and Ford has already announced that it will abandon most of its car models in the next few years to focus on SUV/crossover/pickup truck production. (The Ford F-150 pickup truck is the best-selling model of any vehicle.) Even sedan perennial best sellers Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima have required incentives to bolster demand. This means that there are likely to be some good deals on car models as the shift occurs, especially full-size and mid-size sedans. Demand for compact cars has ticked up recently as the cost-conscious buyer segment finds fewer low-cost options. Continue reading “What Car Shoppers Need To Know This Year”

Will You Have to Pay Sales Taxes on Your Online Purchases?

A pending case before the Supreme Court has many consumers wondering: Am I going to start paying more in taxes to shop online? But you already do, to a certain extent. Amazon, Walmart, Target, Costco, Sears and others have already agreed to collect state sales taxes on online orders. After fighting tax collection efforts for years, Amazon is bowing to the necessity of having a physical presence in every state in the form of distribution centers if it wants to honor its delivery guarantees. That in turn means complying with each state’s sales tax laws.

However, Amazon only collects taxes on its third-party sellers for two states, Washington and Pennsylvania. And many other sellers that do not have a physical distribution network, such as Overstock.com, do not collect either. Such e-commerce businesses have not been required to collect sales taxes since the 1992 Supreme Court case, Quill v. North Dakota, which held that only those businesses with a physical operation in a state had to collect sales taxes from customers in that state. This issue is being revisited in the current Supreme Court case, South Dakota v. Wayfair, which the Court will decide sometime this summer. Continue reading “Will You Have to Pay Sales Taxes on Your Online Purchases?”

Hemp is Coming Back

Hemp will once again be a cash crop for the United States. There is a strong bipartisan push on Capitol Hill to legalize the plant, a close relative of marijuana with myriad industrial uses, and define it as an agricultural commodity.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is cosponsoring and fast-tracking a bill that would remove hemp from the federal list of controlled substances. The legislation would allow states to regulate the plant’s cultivation and sale and it would make hemp farmers eligible for federal crop insurance. Continue reading “Hemp is Coming Back”

Donald Trump’s Jekyll and Hyde Approach to Syria

Keeping up with President Trump’s constantly evolving position on Syria isn’t easy. Just ask his generals.

Earlier this month, the president called for a quick end to America’s military involvement in Syria, arguing the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops currently in the country should be out within six months. Alarm bells sounded at the Pentagon, whose top brass informed the president such a drastic move would jeopardize the ongoing fight against the Islamic State. Continue reading “Donald Trump’s Jekyll and Hyde Approach to Syria”

Gasoline Prices Nearing Multiyear Highs

If you fill up your car’s gas tank with any regularity, you don’t need me to tell you that prices at the pump are on the rise. AAA reports that the national average price of regular unleaded now stands at $2.72 per gallon, up from $2.54 a month ago and $2.41 this time last year. (That national average contains a lot of regional variability. In California, for instance, regular sells for $3.55. In South Carolina, just $2.49.)

Will the run-up keep going? And just how high will prices get? Continue reading “Gasoline Prices Nearing Multiyear Highs”

Paul Ryan’s Exit Upends House GOP

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s pending retirement wasn’t unexpected. Given the raucous, de-centralized nature of the House Republican Conference, as well as the unpredictable, often strained relationship between GOP leaders and President Trump, his announcement this week that he won’t seek re-election was already in the works. The speakership, once the most coveted prize on Capitol Hill, has become a thankless job that some qualified potential candidates now shun. Ryan himself didn’t want the gig, reluctantly accepting the assignment in 2015 out of a sense of party loyalty after then-Speaker John Boehner’s ouster left the conference in turmoil.

Ryan’s self-imposed exile sets off a chain-reaction. For starters, Republicans are struggling to retain control of the House next year. Heading into its toughest campaign season in a decade with a lame-duck leader won’t make things easier for them. Continue reading “Paul Ryan’s Exit Upends House GOP”

How Facebook Will Cope with a Big Tech Crackdown

The backlash against big tech isn’t going anyway anytime soon. Of all the tech titans bracing for impact, Facebook has the most to lose from increased scrutiny and new regulations in the U.S. and around the world.

The most recent firestorm was sparked by a massive data leak that exposed up to 87 million users to the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. Facebook was caught flatfooted by the intensity of condemnation from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Continue reading “How Facebook Will Cope with a Big Tech Crackdown”