Fast Forward: Aaron Shapiro, CEO of Digital Agency Huge Inc.

By Dan Costa Features PCmag

Huge Inc. is a digital agency for some of the biggest brands in the world. When companies like Nike, Lowes, Joe Fresh, Scion, and even Google do cool things in the digital space, chances are a firm like Huge helped conceive and build it.

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CEO Aaron Shapiro helped shift the company from a website builder to a design firm that creates bespoke customer experiences on a massive scale. I spoke to him about the future of digital media, AI's taking our jobs, and art of traveling light.

Check out our chat in the video; the full transcript is below.

Dan Costa: Welcome to Fast Forward, conversations about living in the future. My guest today is Aaron Shapiro, CEO of Huge, a digital agency based in Brooklyn. We're going to talk about the future of the web, artificial intelligence, how we relate to one another and with brands online. Aaron, thanks so much for coming on.

Aaron Shapiro: Thanks for having me.

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Let's talk about Huge. When people think of a digital agency, they think you're building websites and buying banner ads for clients, but Huge does a lot more.

A lot more than that, yeah. What we really do is help clients think about how they should see the digital economy, which...could be everything from in-store retail experiences, thinking about what a store could be like when it's digital, it could be new products and services, of course, marketing campaigns and websites apps. It's a whole world of what a digital footprint for a company is when they communicate with the world.

It used to be that you just needed a website, and therefore you were part of the digital economy.

That's right. Back in the day when we started Huge , it was all website design. Now web is a very small part of everything digital can be.

And you focus on the overall user experience, not just a brand message.

That's right. We think about the overall experience of how people interact with a company online, which is everything. It's from mobile devices, it could be touch interfaces, websites definitely. Also, if you're in a store, what that experience could be like digitally there. It's every single touchpoint that a person has with a company is what we help design and optimize.

What are some of the projects you're most proud of?

Oh, so many. What we've been really fortunate enough since the early days of Huge is to be part of so many of the transformational things of how the Internet has evolved. From the early days of our work, we were, believe it or not, one of the first airlines to put a mini book on the homepage so you can book an airline through JetBlue. Later on, we did the first big social media initiative with Pepsi Refresh. HBO GO, which defined how people use video streaming over the Internet.

More recently, we're doing a lot of things around new products and services. We're launching right now a competitive Venmo for a lot of the major banks. I feel really lucky, personally, to be involved in so many of how much the Internet has evolved and the kind of work that we do that helps set the standard for what excellence in digital is on the Internet.

Talk to me a little bit about the unique value that Huge brings, because it used to be design , we'll get your site up, we'll design it for you, we'll make sure it works, and that was a certain skillset. What do people come to you for that they can't do in-house?

A lot of the secret sauce for us is about really understanding users and what are users trying to do when they're trying to interact with your brand. Users don't interact with brands for fun. They're there to solve a problem. The reason they interact with a digital ecosystem is to solve those problems, and what Huge does really well is understand users, understand how digital can best solve those problems, then partner with clients to create that whole ecosystem for helping meet user needs. The best companies that meet those needs have gone on to be very successful.

We've all seen the success stories of companies like Apple and Facebook that were so successful because they met users' needs, and that's set a really high bar. The challenge for every company is, 'How can their digital ecosystem be as good as those kind of beacon brands?' That's what Huge helps its clients achieve.

One of the problems of the web design, one of the challenges is that you just have so many choices out there. They're so distracted. It's a very noisy environment. You've talked about using design to sort of solve some of those problems using anticipatory design. Could you just explain that thinking a little bit?

So what we've seen is that for most of the Internet's evolution, it's been about more choice. You can go to Amazon. You can get anything in the world to possibly buy, but now that everything is available, the challenge that consumers have is, 'How do I pick the thing that's just right for me?' The idea of anticipatory design is this idea that we can use machine learning and data to help customize an experience to give people just what they want. Effectively, technology is making decisions for people.

To take a small example, when I'm done having this conversation, I'm going to have to get an Uber to go back to my office. Why do I have to tell Uber to pick me up? Why can't Uber talk to my calendar so that way, as soon as I'm finished, then the car is waiting for me so we can go home. That kind of small thing would be how Uber could anticipate my needs, and more and more of the way technology is going to evolve are more and more types of software and services that anticipate our every behavior through data, and therefore make our lives just a little bit simpler and more delightful.

You've explained this as three different ages of ... It's not just the Internet, but the digital world that we live in. Can you explain how you see those three ages breaking down, and then as we move into the current one, artificial intelligence-enabled services? We'll talk more about that, but where do you see the breaking points?

I would argue that we're now entering the third revolution of digital. The first one was, really, the advent of the web, which I think you could summarize as you can read things, because that's all the Internet was back then, was reading a bunch of stuff, and then you can buy something. Basically, a new site combined ... Like combined with Amazon. That was the first web for the first 10 years. Then the iPhone and Facebook came along, and then we entered the mobile and social web where everything we do now is so much oriented towards the phone and towards social media. We can still do all the old stuff, but the new stuff is what dominated usage.

Now we're in this third generation, which is what I call the smart Internet or the automated Internet. We have to think of the right buzzword, right? The idea here is that technology systems have become so intelligent because of the data they have about each of us and the data about the world that we can have services that anticipate our needs and start doing things on an automatic basis. I think the next big change is going to be so big in the next 10 years. It's going to be as big a change as mobile and social where AI starts to infiltrate all parts of our lives to dramatically change every part of the digital landscape and how we as people interact with technology.

Talking about AI, I think it'd be useful to try and define what we mean when we talk about that. If you look at Facebook's announcements, they launched a bot that they put out, several bots, and people got this idea that artificial intelligence was going to help us order pizzas, it was going to help us order flowers. Do you have examples? Have you seen examples of AI being really used for more significant things?

AI will definitely help us order pizza and flowers, but it's certainly going to do a lot more than that, and there's two ways to think about it. I would say three ways, actually. One way to think about it is that there'll be completely new ways to interact with technology. For those of you who've used ... I'm sure you use Alexa, that's a small example of how more and more computing is going to be just talking and communicating to people like the way we communicate with people. Much different than today's interaction models, which is much about clicking and swiping and stuff like that. That's one big shift. It's almost moving the Internet to everywhere in the world instead of just something that's on a screen.

The second big shift is getting back to this idea of anticipatory design, is that what the promise AI does is much, much more personalization and customization than ever before. Imagine a shopping experience, for example, that's not just about Amazon, that has everything at your disposal, but one that knows you so well that it knows exactly which shirts to purchase for you or which types of clothing and all these other things where it knows you so well and it can make very, very smart recommendations for you. It's personalization like you've ever seen before, where everything you do on the Internet is going to be tailored to you.

The final thing is automation. There are so many tasks that we do about our personal and business lives that machine learning can start to automate where it's going to dramatically change how we work and how we go about our daily life because things just happen automatically that now are very mundane manual tasks.

Does that concern you at all? Do you think that the consumers need to opt into this new world or is it going to happen to them whether they like it or not?

It's going to happen whether they like it or not, but the good new is these are going to be such pleasurable experiences that people are going to want it to happen. Think about privacy. No one asked permission for Facebook or Google to collect all this information, but the reason we happily gave them our personal information was because of the tremendous utility and value that we get from Google through search and from Facebook through their newsfeed. These machine smart learning systems are going to be the same thing. By using these systems, it'll get smarter and smarter value, and you'll happily give them more information because it makes your life better.

You have experimented with AI yourself inside your own company. Talk to us about the agent that you built and what it does.

We built an initiative within Huge called Dakota. The idea behind Dakota was, 'Can we create an intelligent agent that automates as much of Huge as possible so that work of all of our employees are easier?' and eventually for clients, they'll be able to use Dakota as well. To give an example, think about ... I'm sure you've all worked in a work environment where expense reporting is very tedious.

I work in that environment right now.

Right. The way we created Dakota was we literally said, 'What are all of the annoying things that employees have at work that we can solve through machine learning to make it much simpler?' That's how we built Dakota, was to systematically address every one of those problems. Things like expense reporting, like finding out within the company who's an expert about different topics that people want to know, finding out documents and examples of types of work that you can't find. How much PTO time do I have? You can ask Dakota and they'll tell you that.

Silly things like is their popcorn ready in the kitchen? Well, Dakota will send you an alert telling you there's popcorn, so quickly run and get your popcorn before it's all eaten up. It's an ongoing project, and every few weeks we're adding new functionality so that the smart agent can do more and more. Our goal, eventually, is that every single possible way that an employee or a client wants to interact with through Huge you can do through Dakota.

Where does Dakota live? Is it proprietary, inside your own servers? Is it build into Slack? How do you see these things shaking out? Are there going to be things that are just built into Slack or your messaging platform or are you going to roll your own?

Our approach, and I think where AI is going, is that is should be ubiquitous. The way we built Dakota is that there's a core intelligence infrastructure, and getting all this data and figuring out what people want, but you should be able to get that anywhere. I should be able to talk to Alexa. I should be able to get a Slack bot or through Facebook Messenger, or I should be able to just do a normal iMessage and communicate that way. A good, intelligent agent should be anywhere you want to have help, but it all talks to the central knowledge repository that we developed.

There are a lot of platforms out there. A lot of companies are trying to build these agents. Do you see any one company that's poised to dominate, whether it's Siri or if it's Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google? They're all doing the same thing and trying to be that personal assistant. Do you see anybody that's got the inside edge?

It's probably a little bit too soon to say who's going to win. I think there'll be multiple winners, but clearly some types of intelligent agents have a lead. I think it'll be hard, given Alexa's traction, for anyone to catch up to them in the home automation space. Certainly, Google and Apple are trying. Likewise, if you want an intelligent on your iPhone, it's going to be tough to outdo Siri because of how entrenched they are.

I don't think that the future is going to be one intelligent agent platform to rule it all. I think most of them are going to succeed. I also think, though, that for companies, that's okay, because you can pretty easily support a lot of these platforms as long as you've solved a lot of the key intelligence problems and build it properly.

Building a knowledge base is the most important thing, and then lots of platforms will be able to access it.

That's right. The great thing about AI nowadays is that a lot of the kind of foundational tools like voice recognition and things like that are now open libraries that are available to anyone through a Cloud platform or through an open-source software. I read this great article how Zuckerberg and his annual thing launched Jarvis. He said it took 16 hours of coding. That seemed crazy, but actually, when you understand the technologies that are at play and what's available, that's kind of true. You don't have to reinvent facial recognition. That exists. There are good APIs for that. There are good APIs for voice recognition and so forth, so what you really have to do is build a knowledge repository and connect all these systems together to create a good AI solution for either personally or for your company.

It's interesting. That's the thing that's changed. All the pieces, all the ingredients for the recipes are out there. As I was researching the story, I was amazed at how many turnkey build-your-bot in WYSIWYG interface are out there and available right now.

It's amazing.

If you've got questions about artificial intelligence or the future of the web, let us know in the comments section. We've got a question right now.

Viewer Question: AI could be potentially disruptive to a lot of different industries. What's your advice to people who are, say, just entering the job market now to stay ahead of that curve?

Aaron Shapiro: That's a great question. AI is certainly affecting a lot of industries, but I also think it's going to create a lot of job opportunities. The best advice I would have for anyone entering the job market is lto earn how to program. Whether you want to be a programmer or not, I think programming is a foundational tool that helps you be successful as a business manager or even a designer, whatever you want to be, and the more fluent you are at technology, the better you're going to be at adjusting to the new world. I think that certainly AI is going to destroy some jobs, but it's going to create many, many new jobs when people have to figure out how to build AI systems and how AI systems can be properly applied to different sectors.

Dan Costa: I think the White House just put out a report today saying that AI was going to cause massive job loss, but we could retrain our workforce and we could be better prepared for it than we would be. How concerned are you? We've covered it a lot on this show and in PC Mag that there are a lot of automated tasks that are just putting people out of work, and those jobs are not coming back. Transportation jobs, service jobs. How much does that worry you?

I think it's a major concern for society at large because those job are not coming back and there's nothing you can do about it. However, I am very bullish about the future of work in general because of the potential that these AI systems create. If you think about it, at the core, what the AI systems do is they make people more productive because now it frees me as a person away from the mundane tasks to doing more higher value tasks. It is a big shift in our economy, and a lot of people are going to have to be retrained, and it's going to be pretty gut shaking for a lot of people, but when you get through the other end of it, we're going to have a society that's much more productive and have a much higher standard of living as a result.

The other thing people are concerned about, particularly with these voice driven interfaces, voice user interfaces, just having that perpetual surveillance and monitoring so it's always listening to you, and that's bothering a lot of people. Amazon had to redesign their device so it actually has a button that lets you know that it's not listening, a little red button, a red light goes on to make it very clear that it's not monitoring you. How big a deal do you think that is in real life, and then do you think people really should be concerned about that?

Well, it goes back to the trade-off we talked about before. If a Big Brother system is listening to your voices all the time and you're getting no value in return, then it's a real problem, but I personally have Amazon through my entire house, and I love it for the most basic use case it was designed for, which is it's amazingly great to just say, "Alexa, play this song," and music starts playing in your house. We've listened to 10 times more music than before we had that set up . If you get the right value, people are willing to make those trade-offs, but definitely there has to be an appropriate legal framework in place and trust for these companies that they're not abusing their surveillance rights. The value of good AI is so big that I think people will happily make that trade-off.

We have another question from the audience.

Viewer Question: What are your thoughts on AI web design services like the grid?

Aaron Shapiro: I think they're really interesting, and for certain types of use cases and applications, I think they're actually pretty good. We've discussed a lot internally at Huge because a lot of our work is still web design work, and we always think, "Wow. Are these intelligent design things going to go away?" I would say that for certain types of lower end solutions, absolutely. They're very good products, and I personally recommend things like Squarespace to colleagues that want basic websites done.

What it does is, like most AI solutions, it forces firms like us to do higher value, more sophisticated solutions that automation can't hope to achieve, and at the same time, we use that automation to help make our work more efficient for clients. We've done a lot of AI type solutions for mass producing display advertising so we don't have designers cropping graphics all day, but you can program machines to do that for us much more efficiently. That ends up making our employees happier and saves money for clients. That's just part of how the workforce is going to evolve over time with AI.

Dan Costa: Yeah, it is amazing, in every industry you have to figure out what kind of value you can add, because if it can be automated, it will be automated, and that goes for writing, it goes for design work. It is amazing how many things can be automated, and AI is just going to push those boundaries even further.

The thing is, automation is a good thing. Automation is what enables the modern world around us. It's the same reason why 100 years ago cars were scary because of, "My God. What's going to happen to the guy who's putting the shoes on the horses?" and all that kind of stuff. It's the same kind of thing, but the positive to the march of progress is there is there is gut wrenching change, but the aftermath of that is a world with a tremendously higher standard of living for people, and that's an exciting thing.

You seem like a techno-optimist.

Aaron Shapiro: I'm a bit of a techno-optimist.

Is there anything in particular that you are afraid of, that you're concerned about in the future that it's like, 'This is a big problem we're going to have to address?'

I actually think the biggest problem, and [inaudible 00:17:56] I'm contradicting everything I said is that I think in some ways people have become too addicted to technology. Think about you walk down the street and everyone's staring on their phone like this and not even looking at the world around me. I have three little boys, and we actually raise our children in a no-screen household, believe it or not. We have no television, no screens, and it's because the best way to learn is the real world around them.

It's hard to raise people that way, kids that way. Certainly, they have plenty of screens in school and places like that, which is fine, but I think that there's a certain benefit to them as children growing up where they learn tactile things and have longer attention spans and all that kind of stuff and learn how to cope with boredom and things. I think that's a microcosm for, I think, the ... One of the challenges for broader society is that technology needs to have a healthy balance with the real world. I'm going to guess that 10 years from now it's going to be as funny seeing pictures of people walking down the street with their phones as the boom boxes from the 80s. "Isn't that funny how everybody were looking at this and banging into people?"

I saw a guy walking down Park Avenue the other day with a tiny little Bluetooth speaker that you could hold in your hand, and it was blasting music, but it just didn't have the same look. It was the same volume, but it looked like it weighed less than a pound.

Oh, it's crazy. It's so funny. I go to the park, I take my kids to the park, and on weekends I never bring my phone with me. The reason was because I was in the park one day and I looked around at all these parents ignoring their kids while they're on their phone. I'm like, "I'm not going to be one of those dads. I want to be with my kids." I'm not trying to be all high and mighty here. My point is that this stuff is so new, we're just learning as a society how to use technology the right way, and I think there can be a healthier balance than where we are today that we really have to figure out over time.

I think of it as we're going to have to develop an immune response in order to maintain our sanity to these new technologies because we're just not used to it. Yeah, we've seen that same thing happen. On a more optimistic note, you travel the world. You're a very big, successful company. What are the technology tools that make you're life easier, that help you get stuff done?

Personally, I'm a big advocate of traveling light, comically light. I have my phone with me and I have a little portable keyboard that folds open that can connect to my iPhone. When I travel, that's all I bring with me.

No laptop, no tablet?

No laptop. No tablet. Because, to me, speed, agility, lightness is key. I hate schlepping all this stuff through the airport, so I go as light as possible. In fact, I went to Toronto last week. I stayed overnight. Everyone thought I was crazy because I brought no bag. They're like, "Well, how did you actually bring a change of clothing?" I actually had pockets in my coat pocket that had all of my sundries that I needed, and I just walked onto the plane with nothing.

Is it an ordinary jacket or is it a ScottyVest with secret component pockets everywhere?

It is an ordinary jacket that has more pockets than usual, so I was able to pull off putting things in random places to go through. That's what I do. I'm all about traveling very light.

Key travel equipment: a phone, attachable keyboard and a jacket with lots of pockets?

A jacket with lots of pockets. That's right. The other key thing is a dongle to connect your phone to an HDMI. That's key.

Okay. For presentations?

For presentations. You can run it off the phone. Also very key.

Very cool.

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