What the Future Holds for Ever-Smarter Smartwatches

Smartwatches are far more than gee-whiz gadgets. Their evolution shows the future of wireless innovation. By next decade, the Dick Tracy-like wrist bands will harness next-generation wireless service, or 5G, the cellular upgrade that promises faster, more ubiquitous and lower-powered wireless connections.  Smartwatch hardware improvements will find their way into other small devices, such as augmented-reality headsets. Continue reading “What the Future Holds for Ever-Smarter Smartwatches”

Control of Congress on the Line as Fall Midterms Loom

Control of Congress is once again on the line as Democrats and Republicans gear up for the November midterm elections. With voting less than five months away, where do the two parties stand?

The race for the House is too close to call at this point. Democrats will certainly gain seats; the “out” party usually does during non-presidential elections. They need a net gain of at least 23 for a majority. Continue reading “Control of Congress on the Line as Fall Midterms Loom”

“It’s the Economy, Stupid”: Trump and GOP Hope to Ride Economy to Victory in November

The strong economy is a political boon to President Trump and Republicans as they fight to maintain control of Congress. The numbers speak for themselves.

Growth is hovering around 3%. Unemployment (3.8%) is the lowest in nearly two decades, with a record number of job openings (6.7 million) to boot. Consumer spending is brisk after starting the year sluggish. Continue reading ““It’s the Economy, Stupid”: Trump and GOP Hope to Ride Economy to Victory in November”

2018 is the New “Year of the Woman” in Politics

A new “Year of the Woman” is taking shape in politics. An unprecedented number of women are running for Congress and governor this year, reflecting a sharp uptick of overall female participation in politics since the 2016 presidential election, particular within the Democratic Party.

Women still face some challenges, so it’s uncertain how this crop will fare come Election Day. But women have never been better positioned to make gains at the state and national levels. Continue reading “2018 is the New “Year of the Woman” in Politics”

How Employers are Managing Health Care Costs

Employers are grappling with holding down 2019 health insurance costs in a tight labor market. While expenses are likely to increase an average of 6% next year, employers are expected to tweak their plans to keep growth around 4%. That’s no small feat given the challenge these days to attract and retain workers. A recent survey by Mercer, a benefits consulting firm, found that two-thirds of workers say the health care a company offers is just as vital as pay when deciding where to work. So, employers will focus on strategies that don’t shift more costs to their employees but try to squeeze out more value for their dollars.

Managing high-cost patients is a top strategy, according to Mercer’s national survey of employer-sponsored health plans. Multimillion dollar claims for patients with complex medical issues are making up a bigger share of employers’ costs. More firms will offer patient advocate services to steer them to the right care at the right place at the right time. The idea is to avoid wasteful, unnecessary treatments while ensuring better care. “There may be five treatment options but maybe two or three have better outcomes,” says Sander Domaszewicz, a consultant with Mercer, a global consulting company. Paying for patients to get a second opinion is another popular move. Continue reading “How Employers are Managing Health Care Costs”

Booming Energy Output to Shrink U.S. Trade Gap

As you may have heard, international trade has become something of a heated issue. President Trump left last weekend’s G7 meeting in Canada angry over the protectionist policies of some of America’s closest allies, which he emphasized by refusing to endorse the group’s written statement on shared economic, trade and environmental aspirations. Leaders of the other G7 members – the world’s seven most advanced economies – were none too pleased themselves, blaming Trump for what they viewed as undue hostility and breaches of diplomatic protocol.

It’s a fight I’ll leave to others. Reasonable people can disagree over how fairly or unfairly U.S. exports are treated by other countries. But I will note that, when it comes to foreign sales of U.S. energy products, the future looks very rosy. Continue reading “Booming Energy Output to Shrink U.S. Trade Gap”

Democrats Avert Disaster in Crucial Calif. Primaries

With their solid showing in this week’s California primaries, Democrats cleared a major hurdle in their bid to take control of the House of Representatives in November.

 The party avoided its worst-case scenario: Being shut out of several potentially competitive races because of California’s unusual primary system, which advances the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, to the general election. On occasion, this leads to races in which two candidates from the same party face off on Election Day.

Democratic leaders fretted about this possibility more and more as primary day drew nearer, envisioning a scenario in which their abundant candidate pool cannibalized itself to Republicans’ advantage. California Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman said he expected Democrats to be shut out of “at least a couple” of what should be competitive races in the fall.

Elevated Democratic turnout and machinations by party leaders to steer voters toward candidates they think had the best shot of winning, in some cases by badgering others to drop out of the race, allowed the party to avoid disaster.

The outcome ensures several vulnerable Republican-held seats are still in play, including seven that 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won. Democrats need to gain at least 23 seats to win control of the House, which Republicans wrested from Democratic control after the 2010 midterms. They can’t flip the House without California.

But it was far from a victory for the party. Democrats burned through a lot of cash just guaranteeing their candidates slots on November’s ballot. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has spent at least $5.6 million in the Golden State this election cycle, at one point even giving money to Republican candidates in the hopes of splitting the GOP vote.

There was a silver lining for Republicans, who are not accustomed to good news in the state leading the “resistance” to Donald Trump’s presidency.

GOP candidates received a majority of the vote in all but one of the state’s key battleground districts. Granted, they underperformed compared to previous election years. Meanwhile, Democrats will likely do much better in the general election, when their voters are more likely to show up.

But Democrats have only proven they will be able to compete come November. They are targeting 10 seats, which Republicans will not give up easily. One vulnerable Republican, Rep. David Valadao, who represents an increasingly liberal district that voted for Clinton in 2016 and President Obama twice, already looks like a strong bet for re-election.

Furthermore, Republicans were not locked out of all major statewide races, which would have depressed their turnout in the general election. Republican John Cox stands little chance of becoming California’s next governor, but he will square off against Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom Nov. 6. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, by contrast, will have no GOP challenger since fellow Democrat Kevin De Leon came in second on Tuesday.

Democrats and Republicans are both spinning the results. In reality, the status quo won. Neither party gained a clear advantage, and the fundamentals of this midterm election did not shift: The House of Representatives is up for grabs; Democrats will gain seats but are not guaranteed enough for a majority; and Republicans will vigorously defend their turf.

Pay attention to the generic ballot, which is starting to swing back in the Democrats’ favor after months of improving numbers for Republicans. With Trump in the White House, the GOP is running on one of the strongest economies in years. If that doesn’t help vulnerable Republican incumbents win re-election, nothing will.

Streaming Video is Taking the Fitness World By Storm

Brick-and-mortar gyms are sweating how fast live-streamed workouts are catching on. Fitness buffs are taking direction from top-notch fitness instructors…from their living rooms via live online classes.

Gym owners worry that customers will start ditching memberships in favor of these at-home online classes. The 36,540 fitness clubs in the U.S. attracted 57 million members in 2016, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, an industry trade group. Globally, health and fitness clubs pulled in $83 billion in 2016.

Fitness videos are nothing new. But those old Jane Fonda VHS tapes were prerecorded, as are many of today’s popular online workouts. The new crop of live broadcasts can be streamed to phones, tablets or TVs and have become appointment viewing for gym rats. The live aspect lures eyeballs with an extra dose of excitement and urgency.

Credit startup Peloton for sparking the phenomenon. The company, founded in 2012, has raised more than $400 million in venture capital and ushered in the streaming revolution about two years ago. It sells a $1,995 indoor bike that includes an attached tablet to watch live spin classes. Peloton charges $39 per month for access to its workouts and now boasts one million members. It recently launched a treadmill, too.

Another fitness app, Zwift, lets bicyclists go on virtual rides with friends from their basements for $15 per month. Bikes are hooked up to indoor trainers that wirelessly connect to a screen that displays a virtual road. The trainer adjusts to conditions, such as making it harder to pedal uphill, and translates the rider’s pedal strokes to the rider on the screen. Users can go for a solo joy ride or race others in real-time on courses in areas such as London, Richmond, Va. or even in made-up worlds.

Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter are also increasingly popular destinations for livestreamed workouts. The social media sites make it easy for anyone to broadcast themselves to the masses and are especially popular with younger digital natives.

The trend is putting pressure on traditional fitness equipment sellers. “We’re not a hardware company,” Peloton’s CEO said in January. “Those companies are yester-year.” In response, equipment sellers will have to adjust. NordicTrack now sells treadmills with large video screens that play prerecorded workouts. Its tagline: “A true club membership in the comfort of your home.”

Gyms are racing to jump on the bandwagon. Gold’s Gym has an app with prerecorded audio workouts to use at the gym or at home, for example, and 24 Hour Fitness launched an app in January that includes personalized video workouts. “In the fitness industry, competition is at an all-time high already with explosive growth of new entrants to the fitness market,” according to Brad Weber, CEO of FitCloudConnect, a streaming video platform catering to gyms.

Jumping into livestreaming can cost traditional health clubs an arm and a leg. Gyms must invest in software and video production, an especially tough prospect for cash-strapped independent gyms. Reliable, fast Wi-Fi is also a must-have because users often want to stream workouts at the club. Weber argues that “existing fitness clubs do not have the time, money or technical expertise to respond to the Peloton threat with a streaming offering.” Buyers of FitCloudConnect’s software can bet on the livestreamed or recorded workouts increasing membership retention, or they can charge extra for access to trainer classes.

Look for more gyms to partner with streaming fitness outfits and mobile apps, either working closer with fitness-tracking apps, such as Strava or MyFitnessPal, or adopting equipment that includes livestreaming capability. “There are thousands of Peloton bikes in hotels, residential developments, college campuses, professional sports team gyms, social and country clubs, and other ‘commercial’ environments,” says Tim Shannehan, Peloton’s chief revenue officer. Shannehan says the consumer market will always be the primary focus, but that the company “sees loads of opportunity” in commercial settings.

Even if gyms can stem defections, they still risk losing high-priced fitness class customers. Head to a gym these days, and you may catch someone consulting with smartphone exercise apps to tell them the next exercise. That’s a lost opportunity for a class run by the gym itself. And if clubs adopt streaming fitness equipment in their gym, they could be introducing members to a viable alternative.

What comes after live streaming? Companies are already working on virtual- and augmented-reality workouts. BoxVR lets VR-wearing users spar with animated targets flying around. Black Box VR has users grab cable pulleys to go through a stamina-tracking video game. The market will gain traction as headsets become lighter, cheaper and more powerful.

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/