Elon Musk has likened our exploration of it to "summoning a demon" and Stephen Hawking opined that it could "spell the end of the human race". Following the BBC’s Intelligent Machines week last month, Artificial Intelligence is finally stepping out of academia (and the movies) and into mainstream debate. There is no doubt it is going to change our world – the only question that remains is to what extent?
Indeed, partially thanks to Watson, IBM’s supercomputer, AI is also set to revolutionise our professional world too. As well as beating two world Jeopardy! champions and helping nurses manage lung cancer treatment at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the computer genius is now turning its talents to marketing – and we should all be, if not worried, then watchful.
Despite being described as a ‘toddler’ (it was essentially ‘born’ in 2010), Watson is already building audience profiles, and doing so based on infinitely more information than a human being is capable of analysing – 80 teraflops (80 trillion operations) of data per second. It takes me at least an hour to do a decent Target Group Index analysis, which probably involves dozens not trillions of operations. The implications of this kind of capability for the research industry alone are mind-boggling (I’m going to reskill as a goat-herder).
But more interestingly for our industry, AI is also able to write basic messaging designed to engage the audiences it has identified and profiled – not something any of us could have attempted while still in nappies. What will it be able to do when it becomes a stroppy teenager? Run media training? Shut down crises? Co-ordinate and manage media relations and social media programmes across markets? Work all night on a pitch and then adjourn, exhausted, to the pub at lunchtime the next day?
Beyond PR, the implications for brands more broadly are also paradigm-shifting – could we ever witness an era of ‘driverless brands’, where everything from the setting of business KPIs through manufacturing and marketing to aftersales service is run by computers, perhaps with a skeleton staff of humans?
This may be a possibility but I suspect will be limited by the extent to which AI can replicate empathy, intuition and creativity.
To illustrate this, I can’t be the only person infuriated by formulaic and automated helplines. Or the only man who gets emails from cosmetics companies asking me what shade of nail varnish I use. Or the only 44-year-old who finds tweets from Anusol (look it up) and funeral services in their Twitter timeline. Such targeting is crude and uncreative – at the moment, a computer cannot understand my emotional reaction to being targeted in this way. Even in these early days of data and automation an empathy filter is clearly lacking. Perhaps we’ll need to develop a brand version of Blade Runner’s empathy test. Perhaps the only branding role in the future will be ‘creative’?
Perhaps we’ll simply be ‘empathy testers’? Who knows?
One thing is for sure, AI will drag our industry into a new era – the big question is, how many of our jobs will it take with it?
Adam Mack is the chief strategy officer, EMEA, at Weber Shandwick