As advertisers wake up to the capabilities that artificial intelligence (AI) can offer them in their roles, not least in helping them understand consumer behavior, this year's Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity featured the leading mind in such a field.
Futurist and inventor, Ray Kurzweil, is the mind behind the theory of the singularity taking place by 2045, the point when humans multiply our effective intelligence a billion fold by merging with the intelligence we have created. He is attending the festival this year with PHD in order to appear on stage and film for a new documentary the media agency is making. It is also using the presence of Kurzweil to launch a book on the topic, appropriately named 'Merge – the closing gap between technology and us’.
"It's an optimistic group that welcomes the future as I do," says Kurzweil when asked what he thinks of the festival. He is sitting quietly on a large deep chair in the middle of the grand lobby of the JW Marriott on Le Croisette having flown in just that morning from the US. He is clearly tired when The Drum greets him but soon warms up while discussing the topic he has spent his professional life leading – the transformational power of technology on people and language.
Asked about his views on the advancement of advertising and communications as a result of technological progress, Kurzweil immediately turns to how useful advertising can be now as it becomes more focused through understanding online user interests.
"Advertising is really blending in with other forms of communication and that is something that people welcome because it is topics that they have an interest in," he says.
"Brands are very important because we need to trust information. Not everything on the internet can be relied on so we use brands as a way of knowing what is reliable," he explains, before later adding that AI can help ensure people are treated as individuals rather than a mass audience being served the same message in unison.
"People will resent wasting their time with messages that don't agree with them, that are in areas they are not interested in, so AI is going to tell people they are going to like a movie or a song and we appreciate that because it's usually right and brands have to be associated with good quality information. You can't sell something that people are not going to like," he says.
He cites advice his aunt, who was a senior vice president of Doyle Dane and Bernbach (DDB) in New York gave, that trying to advertise a brand that people aren't going to like is the quickest way to kill it: "You have to be selling something that is worthwhile and then people will appreciate the message and it's more and more important that people can trust in an era that is filled with misinformation."
He goes on to claim that "language is at the heart of human intelligence" and says that the understanding of human language cannot be faked when asked what technological developments are exciting him currently.
"To really understand language you really have to understand human intelligence and knowledge at human levels. That's what I work on and that is what I think is most exciting but AI keeps doing things that people thought were only the province of human intelligence. Every time AI does something we say 'that's not really AI' and it has been called 'the set of problems we haven't solved yet' but that is getting smaller and smaller."
He repeatedly states that the dawn of AI is not "an alien invasion from Mars" but a result of human ingenuity and believes that technology will ultimately "go inside our bodies and brains" to aid health and and that the neo-cortex of the human brain will be linked directly to the cloud, taking man's evolution a step further as technology assists brains to access more knowledge than ever before.
"We are going to connect our neo-cortex to the cloud and add again to the hierarchy and make ourselves smarter and create capabilities we can't even imagine today. Try explaining language or music or humor to a primate that doesn't understand those concepts. We'll create new types of knowledge that we can't understand today when we increase our neo-cortex wirelessly to the cloud. That's my vision of the future that's a 2030 scenario," he confides.
"If you read my predictions going back to the 80s and 90s, I am always surprised when things I have talked about come true," he later admits. "Although I write about them I still find them remarkable. People very quickly get used to them. It's always been that way," he says, before using the smartphone as an example of something that was mass adopted five years ago and quickly change society.
And it's the accuracy of such predictions that have made Kurzweil's name. For all his writings, he is still best known for his prediction of the Singularity, and despite the continued increase in the speed of technological advancements, he says he still stands by his assertion that the artificial intelligence will be able to pass a Turing test 12 years from now, and that the singularity will still happen in 2045 despite the continued debate of others in the field.
"There are more and more developments that support that view. My view has stayed the same, the consensus view of experts and the general public is moving towards me," he says.
He continues: "There is a growing group of people who think I'm too conservative but I see no reason to change my view. AI is doing more and more things that people said it would never do... by 2029 they will do anything humans can do...
"We make these machines to be smarter and we are already smarter. The idea that we are going to merge with this technology is not radical. We are doing it right now and the typical dystopian futurist movie is the AI versus the brave band of humans fighting for control of humanity. We don't have one single AI in the world today, we have, on last count around 3 billion. Phones are AIs. They have really empowered the individual. They are getting more and more capable and they will be in 8 billion hands within a few years and they are getting more and more integrated with us and they are starting to go into our bodies and brains and it starts with extreme cases like Parkinson's patients but that will be ubiquitous in the 2030s. Whether they are inside our bodies or not, they are already extending our capability."
Finally, when asked about the most accurate depiction of AI he has seen in film, he says that Spike Jonze's Oscar-winning 'Her' is his favourite, but that he felt the ending was a 'cop out' and admits that despite the Terminator being one of the most famous depictions of AI on screen, he has yet to meet its famous director and writer James Cameron.
"He did express an interest in an interview for a series he's doing but I haven't met him yet," he responds casually.
This century, if Kurzweil is correct, humanity is set to evolve and reach a new level of intelligence and expand its horizons to new heights with the aid of intelligence. How marketers will deal with that challenge when they are already struggling to deal with other technological developments appearing at a rapid rate will be a fascinating leap for the industry to deal with. How do you advertise to robots anyway?