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Will AI make us better humans?

Jo Arden is head of strategy at 23red and a passionate advocate of the good that marketing can do, working on social purpose and behaviour change projects for the past 10 years.

It already seems an age since Christmas and the speculation about who might ‘win’. And this year was no less hard fought than usual. But there was a distinct theme of getting back to what matters running through many of the big ads of the season.

It was perhaps this renewed focus on the humanity of the festive period as opposed to the commerciality that swung it for Sainsbury’s in the end (we’ll conveniently forget that we are still talking about a supermarket winning Christmas).

As we look back at a very challenging 2016, and set out our ambitions for a better, happier, less odd 2017, people are focusing more on how they can grow, rather than how they can gain. Commentary about new year’s resolutions shows that along with the usual attempts to do less of this and stop smoking that, there are desires that are singularly about having more time to do the things that make us happy. More travel, more exercise, more time for learning and more time for each other are all in the top 10 this year.

As luck would have it, 2017 is also set to be the year of artificial intelligence. It’s the year where the connected home starts to become a reality. And with that, technology should start to deliver on the age old promise of freeing up more time for us to put to better, more edifying use. Whilst Google Home is running fast to make up time, Amazon Echo is already gaining traction in the US and the UK, but what can it actually do that will make a material impact on our lives and, importantly for January, enable us to free up time to stick to those resolutions?

With well over 3000 skills (in simple terms these are voice apps) there’s untold potential for Echo via Alexa to make life that bit easier. Partnerships with home heating and lighting brands such as NEST and Phillips Hue mean that temperature and lighting can be controlled with a quick command. Most home integration hubs connect with Alexa and as such they enable us to have a highly personalised system which meets the needs of each new day. So for those that have pledged to do more exercise this is ideal. With the number one excuse for not running is that it is just too hard to get out of bed on a cold, dark morning, Alexa can now help you create the perfect pre-run environment. Plus, by connecting with Spotify, you can also command a warm-up play list to get the blood pumping.

It’s easy to see how an exercise regime can be enabled by AI, but outsourcing our self-control when it comes to diet may take some more time especially given that Domino's Pizza was one of the launch partners for Echo. As yet it’s not possible to order food from Amazon Fresh or Amazon Pantry, though that too is likely to change soon. However you can track calories and get advice on nutritional content of foods through pairing the device with Nutritionix, for instance, allowing you to check with Alexa before you reach for the leftover Christmas cake.

In terms of learning, Alexa (via Audible and Kindle) can source and read books, meaning that no matter how busy you are, you can stick to resolutions about learning new things. The service also extends to Wikipedia articles using voice synthesis and current affairs sources will be introduced this year. Useful as we get stuck into what is likely to be an important year in which to keep up to date with the news.

But what about genuinely freeing up more time to spend on relationships and with each other? By connecting to shopping services, it can be argued that Alexa starts to take away some time-consuming chores, but the service is not complete enough yet (especially because it does not cover grocery) to give us back a meaningful amount of time. And there is something faintly disturbing about a device that in time may further take away the need to go out and interact with the world (despite how far away this seems).

For those that truly want to give the gift of time, we may need to see how Sainsbury’s is getting on with the cloning machine, at least for another year.

Jo Arden is head of strategy at 23red

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