Swatting Flies, Bored Dogs and the Future of Business

Ever wondered why it’s so hard to swat a fly?

Researchers from Caltech offered early answers to this age old question in a 2008 study, which was later expanded in a recent study published in Animal Behavior. The first determinant is based on an objective measure called Critical Flicker-Fusion Frequency (CFF) which is the lowest frequency at which a flickering light appears as a solid beam to the observer. CFF is therefore a good indicator of motion perception. The second determinant is based on size and metabolic rate which determines how quickly an animal’s brain is able to process light.

For humans, CFF is 60 Hertz/sec (60 times a second). Televisions are set at this frequency, so we can see a continuous picture. The CFF for dogs is 80 Hz/sec, which means a normal television program appears as a series of still pictures to dogs as opposed to continuous motion. No matter how exciting the television show, this is why dogs almost invariably fall asleep in front of the television set.

With their “compound eyes”, smaller size and high metabolic rate flies on the other hand, flies have a CFF of 250, and are able to process light and information through their visual and sensory systems much faster per second than humans. As a result, motion itself appears almost 7 times slower than it does to humans within the same time window. Like Keanu Reeves evading speeding bullets by slowing down time in The Matrix, flies use this combination of its visual senses, brain power and body mechanics (flies have three pairs of legs) to take evasive action from impending calamity like a fly swatter in less than 100 milliseconds from recognizing a threat .

As interesting and revealing as this research is, I couldn’t help but think about it in an analogous business context. Just like animals recognize and respond to light and therefore motion to survive,   businesses need to recognize and respond to impending threats or opportunities like changes in competition, customers, and other market conditions to survive.

While there is very little humans and animals can do to alter their native CFF’s,  the combination of modern technologies like cloud, big-data, social and mobile is enabling us to sense, process, and act on information at unprecedented rates, giving us detailed insights into events, transactions, and complex relationships than ever possible before. Consequently, we now have an ability of artificially increasing our own CFF’s and our metabolic information processing rates to dramatically improve responsiveness and smarts “on the fly”.

For business strategists, this means new opportunities to operate in a real-time relevant, or even a predictive context – whether it’s responding to customers current or future desires, planning and running their supply chains, or optimizing their resources. Free applications like Google Correlate and Google Insights mine “database of intentions” to help anyone and any business understand the present to predict the future instantaneously.   A recent Anticipatory Shipping Patent awarded to Amazon, shows that the company may have a good handle on what you may buy even before you do, and can even trigger the optimal logistics of getting it to you before a formalized purchase.

In our personal lives, it means new opportunities for delivering personalized treatment for deadly diseases like cancer, and wearable devices designed to proactively improving our health, our social interactions, and our overall quality of life.

At work and in our personal lives, it may very well be better to see, think and act like a fly.

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