News & Views

Opinion / No, The Machines aren’t Rising

by Patrick Jeffrey

Hollywood’s representation of artificial intelligence means that many people still consider it to be the stuff of dystopian fiction. But this masks the transformative impact that AI will have in business over the next five years. One of the industries to be most affected? Yup, marketing.


The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in the present. Tonight…

This is how so many articles on AI tend to start – an ugly premonition accompanied by a red-eyed, leather-clad image of Arnold Schwarzenegger from the 80s. Or maybe they’ll opt for a pithy quote from Blade Runner or Ex Machina.

Don’t get me wrong, these are great science fiction films that tap into one of our biggest fears: machines that are cleverer than us. But my fear is that we’re letting our imaginations run away with us a bit too easily.

It’s true that, one day, we may one day create ‘artificial super intelligence’ – described by Oxford University’s Nick Bostrom as ‘An intellect that is much smarter than the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom and social skills.’ And yes, if handled incorrectly, this could become a dangerous force, as outlined by recent warnings from great minds like Hawking, Musk and Gates.

However, to obsess over this today is akin to cancelling your trip to Venice because it might be underwater in 100 years’ time. AI needs to be reformatted from the depiction of a futuristic robot army to something much more mundane, but no less important.

Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired, summed this up nicely when he compared the next wave of artificial intelligence to a kind of souped-up Amazon Web Services: ‘Like all utilities, AI will be supremely boring, even as it transforms the internet, the global economy and civilization,’ he wrote last year. ‘It will enliven inert objects, much as electricity did more than a century ago. Everything that we formerly electrified we will now cognitise.’

The Lowdown on AI

In the next issue of Contagious magazine, which will be hitting subscribers’ desks in late August, I delve into this world of AI. No evil premonitions, no Arnold Schwarzenegger quotes. I look at how specific advances in the field, especially in ‘deep learning’ – where machines can effectively teach themselves without the need for programming or human dependency – have paved the way for significant leaps forward to be made in the marketing industry over the next five to ten years.

As a taster, here are three extracts, each from a different voice within the field of AI:

IBM / Making sense of Big Data

‘A lot of people see Big Data as a noose as opposed to a success story,’ said Saul Berman, chief strategist at IBM Global Business Services, when I interviewed him in Cannes last month. ‘Now we are starting to see cognitive computing use that data to take industries to the next level.’

Berman believes that the introduction of Watson, IBM’s super-smart cognitive computing agent, will force the entire marketing industry to transform. It’ll make everyone in the industry more effective at their job, he told me, by giving us more information, more insights and more patterns which, in turn, will help us be more creative and more effective. ‘Artificial intelligence is taking digital to the next level because it is like digital on steroids’, he said.

Nuance / Transforming Customer Service

The launch of virtual personal assistants – like Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana – didn’t quite live up to the expectations of the tech companies behind them. But soon these VPAs could become embedded in our daily lives, effectively becoming the gateway between our virtual and physical worlds. Brands are already figuring out how they can use these helpers to better interact with consumers. ‘Virtual assistants have come from being very disconnected, very low context and not having a deep understanding of the customer,’ said Seb Reeve of Nuance Communications, a company that builds virtual assistants for businesses, ‘but that’s changing quickly.’

PHD / The Agency of the Future

Having just co-authored a book on AI’s implications for the industry, PHD Media’s Mark Holden is in a pretty good place to suggest where we may be headed. ‘The big theme for marketing is that algorithms will start to take control at a micro-decision level and therefore human intervention will concentrate more on technology and data strategy. We will create an AI-powered central nervous system and our role will be to attend to this and tweak it if necessary.’ This, Mark goes on to say, will create a fundamental restructuring of how we advertise to audiences. ‘We’ll see this as a new paradigm and will look back on today and think how crazy it was that we used to do all the basic work ourselves.’

This future isn’t miles away, it’s on the horizon. Research firm Gartner recommends that ‘companies should look to make deliberate decisions about [smart machines] during the next two years’.

As a result, the conversation in business needs to focus less on what could happen and instead highlight the transformative potential of AI today. It may not be as compelling as Hollywood’s depiction, but its impact will be just as important. As Nuance’s Seb Reeve so aptly told me: ‘There are a lot of science projects out there, which is wonderful, but ultimately it’s not a moonshot that’s required to make customer service better.’

Issue 44 of Contagious features an in-depth focus on artificial intelligence, as well as case studies on Pedigree and Volvo. For more information and to subscribe, visit our website or email