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AI still needs human guidance, marketing experts say during AWNY 2023

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By Webb Wright | NY reporter

October 16, 2023 | 6 min read

Excitement and curiosity about the technology ran high during the conference’s opening day. But the need for humans in the loop was emphasized even more.

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An ad spotted at AWNY '23 captured a sentiment that was pervasive throughout much of the event's opening day. / Webb Wright

Advertising Week New York (AWNY) 2023 kicked off this morning near Manhattan’s Penn Station, drawing in thousands of marketing professionals. Unsurprisingly, artificial intelligence (AI) has already emerged as a major theme in this year’s conference.

AI has exploded – both in terms of its capabilities and its presence in mainstream media coverage – over the past year, since the November 2022 release of ChatGPT, an AI-powered chatbot which shocked the world with its ability to produce text which closely resembles human language. For many marketers, that was a watershed moment: AI suddenly went from being a niche technology to an essential tool that promised to revolutionize their industry.

That change was reflected during this year’s Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity in the French Riviera, which was largely dominated by discussion about AI.

Panels focused on AI at the opening day of AWNY 2023 drew huge crowds, some of which were forced to zig and zag in a manner which tested the limits of the venue’s carrying capacity. And while there was some enthusiastic discussion about the technical capabilities of AI, many of the conversations had a much more distinct humanitarian undertone – an emphasis on the potential for AI to serve human creativity, rather than the other way around.

“AI should be used to elevate the marketer,” Thomas Garvey, a digital marketer at Google Media Lab, said during a lunchtime panel about AI and ML within the advertising industry.

The rapid rise of AI over the past year has coincided with some anxieties about the technology’s potential social impacts, including the possibility that it could push huge portions of human beings out of the job market. Few advertising experts, however, seem to currently believe that AI will fully make human marketers obsolete; it’s much more common to encounter the belief that AI will simply enhance the power of human thought. There’s some untouchable élan vital of human creativity, this school of thought maintains, which intelligent algorithms will never be able to fully replicate.

This belief shined through during Monday’s AI-focused panels at AWNY.

Adtech firm Moloco’s chief ML officer Tal Shaked, one of Garvey's copanelists, underscored the need for human oversight of AI: “Machine learning works only as well as the data you give it,” he said. (Shaked also claims that he and his wife landed on the name for their third child, Orion, through a suggestion from ChatGPT.)

Another note of humanitarian optimism in the age of AI that was underscored today was the idea that the technology, rather than pushing human marketers completely out of the job market and into a state of irrelevance, could simply liberate those professionals from mundane, mind-numbing tasks which presently take up so much time, freeing them up to embark on more fulfilling pursuits.

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“[AI] makes us more human,” Forrester principal analyst Jay Pattisall said during a Monday morning panel about AI-powered marketing, describing this potential for AI to make it easier for human beings to devote themselves to more meaningful projects.

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