Whether we realize it or not, artificial intelligence (AI) is now a major part of our daily experience. Internet giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon have all embraced AI to the point that they guide what we see, when we see it and whether or not we make a purchase.
For business owners and marketers, the question is, am I going to passively allow AI to happen to me, or am I instead going to find ways to harness, control and benefit from it?
What is AI?
A traditional definition of artificial intelligence, as defined by Alan Turing and put to the test in movie The Imitation Game, is the ability of machines to replicate human thinking and reasoning. In practice, we can now see this in our everyday lives when our navigation apps help us to avoid a traffic accident, Google helps us find information, Gmail finishes our sentences or Siri responds to our questions.
In all of these situations the underlying software or algorithm is processing huge amounts of data or information to predict an outcome and direct us to the best possible solution. This speaks to one of the fundamental principles of marketing – namely identifying what is it that your customers need or want that your product or service can satisfy.
Data is of course essential to this whole process; however, raw data on its own is very little use to anyone, whether human or machine. In order to be of use it needs to be linked to a given outcome, or in AI terms ‘labelled’.
At its most basic level, this means that having performed trillions of images searches for the term Jaguar, Google is most likely to show you images of the car company’s most popular makes rather than of the jungle cat. It knows that for all those people who searched for that term, the larger percent clicked on a particular image or source showing the car rather than the cat.
This has extended to purchased versus didn’t purchase, clicked versus didn’t click and, following the purchase of YouTube in 2006, watched until the end versus switched videos. For Google, AI has always been the intention. When asked in the early 2000s why the company was so focused on providing search results for free, co-founder Larry Page said: “Oh, we’re really making an AI.”
How to make use of AI
Having worked in this field since 2005 and having seen how systems and platforms have developed, I can say that it’s now time that we stopped considering these internet behemoths as simply advertising platforms and more as AI super engines.
To draw a direct parallel from another area of AI, consider air flight. Every new commercial airplane in the world today is driven and controlled by a computer for 98% of the time, with the pilot there to make the important and critical movements at the right and appropriate time. Every business now needs an AI pilot there to guide the trajectory and journey of the marketing campaigns and make the critical decisions when they need to be made, all the time working in harmony with the AI to deliver better results.
A large part of this requires taking a leap of faith and relinquishing human control. Whereas in the past undertaking a major advertising campaign would require the assistance of a large media buying team or agency that would assess different platforms and recommend which ‘spots’ you should purchase – often making a hefty mark up in the process – AI engines such as the Google Display Network (GDN), if set up in the right way, will do all of that work for you.
As described in the opening sequences of the 2019 Netflix film, The Great Hack, it now appears that our devices are listening into our conversations as more and more of us experience advertising being displayed to us at points in time that seem to be very coincidental. A more precise explanation is that our behaviour is being accurately predicted based our likes, shares, interests, search history and thousands of other data points that the platforms collect.
GDN not only takes on the role of media buyer, matching the ad to the context of the web page, but also identifies the interest of the individual reader visiting the page. The magic of AI then kicks in, with each ad appearing the moment the right person lands there. Repeated millions upon millions of times, this ensures that the right person gets the right information at the right time.
It does, however, get rid of the reassuring knowledge that your advert will appear in a given location, at a given time. With the majority of AI-driven campaigns generating in excess of a 10:1 return, however, this soon becomes much less of a concern.
What is the future of AI?
To put it simply, the future is now. The number of data points and AI applications are advancing at a ferocious speed. Acclaimed author and former head of Google China, Kai-Fu Lee, identified four waves of the AI revolution in his 2018 book AI Super-Powers. The first two, internet AI and business AI, have already been addressed extensively in this article. The third wave – perception AI – we’ve touched upon, and it is the digitizing of our physical world.
Smartphones now use perception AI to recognize our faces and protect our devices and wallets, while Amazon Echo is digitizing the audio environment of our homes. This is set to become ubiquitous, not just limited to certain devices and platforms but all encompassing, providing even more data and touchpoints to the great AI engines. Virtually everything is set to be connected, with people moving between a physical and digital world simultaneously hundreds of times every day.
The final wave is autonomous AI, and is made possible by machines being able to see, hear and react to the world around them. We can see this already through the development of self-driving cars and hazard awareness and prevention. This will extend to fully autonomous drones. Machines will have the ability to optimize their performance from being immersed in our daily lives, leading to enhanced learning from extremely complex data sets that expand continuously, ‘fuelling’ the algorithms and allowing them to understand and interact with the world more so than ever before.
AI is no longer the work of science fiction and prediction – it’s a very real part of our lived experience. While most businesses are not in the position of developing self-driving cars and autonomous drones like Google and Amazon, they still need to take advantage of those AI applications available today that will help to better markets and grow their businesses.
Over the next few years AI will decipher an unimaginable amount of information collected by billions of sensors embedded into our cars, draped over our bodies in wearable smart clothes, and in our homes and public spaces. Those businesses with the right expertize in place are set to benefit from unprecedented targeting and personalization, but to do so need to embrace AI now.
Gez McGuire is founder of MCG Digital Media.