More than buzzwords: Why brand tech like AI and conversational interfaces will shape society

Members of the IPA's Brand Technology Group provide an industry view on the impact technology is having on brands, consumers and agencies.

From machine learning to artificial intelligence to conversational interfaces – these are the buzzwords currently transforming brand tech and in turn shaping society. But what do they actually mean and how are they changing things?

In simple terms:

  • Artificial intelligence is a measure of a system's ability to reason like a human (could it hear a sentence like 'Prince is brown bread' for the first time and know it's rhyming slang not a baked tribute?).
  • Machine learning describes a system's capability to teach itself (if you show it five pictures of chairs will it discriminate between chairs and tables from now on?).
  • Having a conversational interface means instead of presenting buttons and text fields (like in a webpage) a system will communicate with you using natural language either in text (so you could talk to a robot in Messenger or iMessage), or via voice like Siri.

Together, these constitute computers that can beat you at Go, know what kind of music you like better than you do, and can put us all out of our jobs. They also, as is traditional, provide short-term opportunity to win some Cannes Lions with stunning-but-narrowly-effective ideas before the underlying technologies become a mundane part of our lives. In other words, they are the next 'apps' or 'QR codes' with the difference being, they are actually important.

When I say 'mundane' I do not mean unimportant — the examples of these technologies I give above are not comic. This is, genuinely, a set of places where brands are leading huge societal changes. This underlies the truism that all interactions with a brand are communications opportunities, and therefore 'advertising' is a decreasingly important part of the communication mix. Which is, to be frank, a gross trivialisation of the next revolution in computing.

At the same time these technologies are, of course, currently at the peak of the Gartner Hype Cycle. Machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) are far from new. None of us know what the gloriously mundane future looks like — and none of us will know if we don't design that future ourselves via trial and error.

Instead of the stunty Cannes-friendly tactical campaign, these technologies can change the nature of brand communications. All of these technologies are now being exposed to all businesses as concrete products and services teams such as yours can use in-house or resell to clients rather than abstract concepts.

At time of writing Google just had its annual developer's shindig, I/O, where it showed this is where it thinks the puck is travelling, and therefore where it can beat Apple. This stuff is all better done in the cloud, aggregating the sum total of human interaction; the individual capabilities of your handheld device become unimportant. Google recently open-sourced a framework called, exquisitely, "Parsey McParseface": technology that lets a system crack what a human sentence means in context, something at which humans are amazing and computers are terrible. Crucially, this framework has an API and documentation (ask your developers — better still, ask them to play with it). This technology is ready to rock. The interesting thing about Google's new messaging client, Allo, is that each conversation has a bot lurking about which you can invoke to, say, settle a bet and order a pizza.

Facebook is pimping out its bot, too. Aimed directly at brands, it hopes to persuade you to employ Messenger as an automated platform for customers to talk to you without you having to pay people on the phone. If you have any doubts about how sophisticated conversational interface technologies are, right now, you should meet Viv (at viv.ai — obviously). Viv has been created by the team which also created Siri.

All of the four horsemen (Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook) are active here. Amazon's Echo is creating many converts. Echo is a portable speaker with multiple microphones and powerful noise-cancelling. It lets Amazon listen to everything you say in your home, which is or is not creepy depending on the value you give to the ability to re-order washing powder by voicing the desire in your kitchen. Given the path Amazon took in commercialising its web services platform, one can expect Echo's capabilities will — in some form — become available to you. What would you do with it?

As for Apple, it has its Worldwide Developer Conference in June. Reducing the importance of the Apple ecosystem and the importance of the world's best industrial design is the only way to beat that company, and Apple's customer-friendly privacy model means it is corporately disinclined to to eavesdrop on your conversations to power its AI. Apple is not, however, stupid. You can already say "Hey Siri" and have him/her pop up on your phone or wrist. Apple always puts its users (or itself certainly) before other commercial third parties so what it will bring to the conversation will be fascinating.

It may not matter whose technologies will 'win' here; it rarely does. The point is there is some magic to be made and some brand reputations to make; some stories to tell and some changes to be made. Have at it!

Paul Bennun is non-executive director at Somethin’ Else and a member of the IPA's Brand Tech Group which provides an industry view on the impact technology is having on brands, consumers and agencies

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