The rise of the IPAs (that's Intelligent Personal Assistants – not beer) and what they mean for marketing

Reflecting back on this year’s IAB Engage, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that we are starting to see widespread availability of technologies that are going to have a huge impact on our lives in the not too distant future. Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Andrew and Amy (from x.ai) or Google’s Assistant are among the first mainstream manifestations of smart robots that Hollywood has been telling us for years are coming. Or are they?

The promise when you watch ads for some of these products is that you’ll be able to ask for help with everything from fact checking, to setting up a meeting and finding a venue, to ordering a pizza, and it should feel like a conversation with a real person. In fact, Amy of x.ai was asked out on a date around once a month in her first year of setting up meetings for executives. Thankfully, she did come clean by explaining that she was a personal assistant and so unable to join in person!

To date, it seems that the only convincing AI bots are highly specialised in their area of assistance and the only reason such awkward situations occur is because the situation and language required is very specific.

The “generalists” such as Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant are asked such a wide variety of questions, it’s almost impossible for them to reply with human-like responses to the majority of those posed. Indeed, all of them have ‘Easter Eggs’ built in, rewarding users for asking certain questions such as what is the meaning of life, or what they think of each other. But generic responses are returned to most questions.

Currently Google Assistant, which arguably has the best access of all IPAs to information, does not respond as expected in some basic scenarios I tested. When instructed to order some pizza, I was offered up a YouTube video showing me someone using Siri to order a pizza. It’s all quite entertaining (I particularly enjoyed watching my son interrogate Alexa on why she had a date of birth but was not a person) but each interaction ultimately reminds you that you’re talking to bots that are currently limited in their responses, despite their apparent brilliance when demoed in product launches or adverts.

And speaking of advertising, it’s interesting to ruminate on how bots might behave when asked to purchase a product. If you were to ask Alexa to replenish your toothpaste, would she simply order the product which made Amazon the best margin? Or would she look at your previous purchase history of toothpaste? Or perhaps there is a future where a brand such as P&G would send out “adbots” on the release of a new product or during a price promotion to communicate with bots like Alexa? Bots advertising to bots is an interesting concept (and ironically one of the industry’s big challenges with relation to fraud today!) It would certainly require the adtech industry to reconsider how it creates audience profiles, which are currently predicated on device IDs, browsing and location history, and assumed intent. What audience characteristics will your bot exhibit for advertisers?

One other interesting area here is how we feel as humans talking to machines. Siri did not really have a big impact on my life when she appeared back in 2011 aside from being a bit of fun for the first week. Despite more broad adoption in the US, it is still the exception to find regular users of Siri, something I equate to being because of the hang up I have about what others might think of me talking to a machine (or myself).

Equally, the introduction of Alexa into our house has, more than once, resulted in my wife asking if I’m talking to her when I’m actually asking Alexa what the weather is like, or to turn on the radio. Talking to yourself carries connotations that persist today, despite many technologies such as Bluetooth headsets being with us for almost 20 years.

Mobile phones and our use of them in public have become ubiquitous and I think that’s because of the value they can bring to our lives that simply does not exist without them. Perhaps when the value we can get from IPAs becomes sufficiently great, that will be when this behaviour becomes the new normal.

Gavin Stirrat is managing director at Voluum

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