Robots and artificial intelligence – they’re scary, right? Ask me to name three famous robots and I automatically think of HAL 9000, The Terminator and Megatron. In real life, robots stole all the manufacturing jobs and now they’re coming for ours in media. Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Echo and Facebook’s M are becoming increasingly intelligent; able to anticipate what we’d want to order from the supermarket, quickly search for answers to any of our questions and control the devices in our connected homes. Just imagine what similar AI could do when it comes to interpreting big data, creating media plans and optimising campaigns in our office? We should prepare for the rise of the robots!
Well, not quite. Instead, we should probably prepare for ‘the fall of the spreadsheets.’ If you’re reading this article, I’m willing to wager that you often use Excel in your job and I’m also pretty confident that’s it the part of work you enjoy the least. Realistically, helping you with the mundane task of interpreting reams of data is how AI will soon be used. So while the role of Data Analyst may soon be obsolete, the robots aren’t taking over just yet – rational humans will still be needed to apply their lateral thinking to any story deduced by a robot from the data. But it shouldn’t be surprising that we’ll use bots in this way – humans love to be told stories way more than looking at numbers on a chart. Just look up “telling stories” in Bing and the second suggested search is “telling stories with data.”
Brands should start thinking about how they can follow this trend for their consumers too, particularly in the “dark social” (i.e. private social networking) realm of messaging apps. Facebook recently announced their Wit.ai Bot Engine which will help businesses create bots to manage common conversations like providing news and weather updates, answering frequently asked questions and even customised conversations like providing receipts. In 2014, Zuckerberg himself admitted that “Messaging is one of the few things that people do more than social networking,” so having conversations in a friendly, helpful (yet automated) way benefits both brands and consumers alike. If I’ve got questions about an upcoming flight (what time is check-in, when does the gate close, what’s my baggage allowance, is my flight delayed?) I’d much rather ask an instantly available Messenger bot that has all the answers than queue on an office-hours phone line or have to search through the web and my emails in the hope that I can interpret the answer correctly myself (if my history of missing flights tells me anything, it’s that I can’t).
But of course, the technology isn’t perfect. Millions watched in horror as Microsoft’s Tay, recently launched on Twitter to learn from humans and interact in the tone of a female millennial, was exploited by trolls who gamed her into becoming what commentators described as a “Hitler loving sexbot.” Go to Google and ask “Who was president when JFK was born?” and it’s unable to answer such a deceptively complex question. Instead, you’ll get pages of information on John F Kennedy, his presidency and when he was born (the answer was Woodrow Wilson, by the way). Just imagine how others will struggle to match data sets and user IDs across increasingly fractured online ecosystems. I listen to hundreds of bands with Spotify so it has a very detailed picture of my favourite genres, but it still doesn’t know which bands I’ve bought albums from on Amazon or whose music videos I’ve been watching on YouTube. As Apple, Android, Alphabet and Amazon become more competitive, how will artificial intelligence be able to see our entire online footprint to understand our interests and behaviour in a useful way?
Even so, just by using single ecosystems big enough to cover a wide range of our habits, media will inevitably lead AI’s development. Advertising isn’t brain surgery which, like finance and transportation, would be much more dangerous places to test this technology. So while there’s still a lot of room for improvement, it’s up to us to push AI’s progress to not only help the rise of the robots, but also help ourselves.