“Be Very Afraid! AI Will Destroy The Ad Industry” (Or Is That Only In The Movies?)

“Be Very Afraid! AI Will Destroy The Ad Industry” (Or Is That Only In The Movies?)
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B&T’s regular guest posters – HOW&Y’s Brian and Evan Mitchell – are back with a new column. This time the duo take a look at the “big idea” VS “big data” debate and the repercussions it will have on agency land…

Are “thinking machines” on the verge of replacing human ingenuity?

It’s an enduring theme of science fiction, usually to tragic or horrific ends. Manufactured machine intelligences develop self-awareness, then turn on and usurp their human creators.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the sentient “Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer” 9000 model (personified as HAL) subverts our most far-reaching and audacious space expedition to his own ends, prepared to execute human astronauts along the way.

The Skynet network in The Terminator franchise is a vast hive mind, every computer a functioning neuron, every machine an agent, and determined to rid the world of its upstart creators.

And in The Matrix and spin-offs, horror meets the supreme insult to human pre-eminence – as people in forced pod-hibernation are exploited for energy, a kind of vast mechanistic vampirism.

Is this the future for adland? With clever creatives surrendering to even more clever machines? If so, let’s hope the AIs are more like Alicia Vikander’s Anna (Ex Machina) than Arnie’s cyborg.

Far-fetched, right? Not so, say some. Plenty are predicting blood on the ground (and we know whose) as the battle lines are drawn between Big Data and Big Idea. The ideational conflict around this pending battle is also becoming more contentious – as laid out in an earlier article.

Spokespeople for data giants and “adtech” proponents predict a very near future in which ads are not the output of verbal and visual creative genius – the inventive synergy of copywriter and artist – but rather created by computers.

This disturbing dystopia (at least from adland’s point of view) would see the digital advertising space (and earnings) “owned” by Google and Facebook.

Opponents of this bleak view – and we count ourselves firmly among them – offer in argument the “same old shit” scenario. That is, that “machine learning” is far more limited than its exponents would admit, true “artificial intelligence” is not decades but centuries and possibly millennia away (if it is even possible at all), and that all these creative-replacing “creative” computers are doing is giving people what they have shown themselves habitually to want… right up until they don’t want that anymore.

Then what do they do?

Intuition is counter-intuitive.

The most enduring brand messages are not simply slogans. They are themes that represent both the soul of the brand, and the fundamental basis of the consumer’s need, desire and engagement. They also come with the element of surprise, the counter-intuitive slant that proves itself truly intuitive.

Think “Think Small” – the iconic DDB ad for Volkswagen. The synergistically convoluted process that spawned this most counter-intuitive of all advertising messages couldn’t have come about through machines. It was too un-programmed (chaotic almost) to be the outcome of a programmed “intelligence”.

Or Nike’s “Just Do It” – a demand expressed as a flippant throwaway line, but with a basis of connection far superior to any computer-generated exhortation to buy.

Data, however big or small, does just one thing – it paints a picture of what people currently do, currently want, currently respond to.

It has little predictive value, without human creativity to make the subtle and unpredictable leaps.

It lacks the dimension of inspiration and intuition that creates new responses, reactions, desires and directions in consumers.

It can only keep adding layer on layer to the existing mould – when what’s needed so often in truly creative campaigns and innovative product design is breaking the mould.

Before sci-fi writers began extrapolating the potential horrors of AI, its pursuit was seen as one of the most noble, if impenetrable, pursuits of science, philosophy and linguistics.

In 1950 Alan Turing (cipher-breaking hero of WWII, mythologised in the film The Imitation Game) revealed a test for AI, “The Turing Test,” disarming in its elegant simplicity. A computer was deemed to display AI if its answers were indistinguishable from a human’s – from the point of view of another human asking it questions. While a breakthrough at the time, and an invaluable contribution to the direction of research in the field, the Turing Test actually says less about the abilities of the computer than of the credulity of the subject. It requires no self-awareness, no sentience on the part of the computer, just the availability of responses that can fool a human (and while human creativity might be the highest form of creativity, best not to dwell on human foolishness).

Still, AI is hell sexy. Futurists and venture capitalists like to talk up the “where we’re going and how quickly we’re getting there” shtick because it’s good for business. Their business.

Recently the venture capitalist with a future-fetish, the so-called “godfather of tech” Brad Feld, talked about the “human being who can augment themselves with technology.” His example, superficially convincing, is actually one of staggering asininity. “When I was a kid I had an encyclopaedia… and now you type a couple of words into a box…” He completes the flawed analogy, “Extrapolate twenty years from now and imaging a scenario where that’s physically implanted in your brain.” Twenty years!

Feld completes the ludicrous claims with the erroneous parallel of joint replacements – which are based on a fundamental understanding of mechanics, a far cry from the largely unknown and mind-bogglingly intricate nuances of cognition, emotion and intention.

Another prevalent trope in recent science fiction, when we are all actually walking around with those brain implants Feld reckons we’ll be sporting in twenty years, is of genuinely tailored ads – holographic ads appearing just to me (and others, just to you), enabled by the deepest reading of our personalities and thought-patterns.

Marketers of the world lick their lips in anticipation.

And neuroscientists are on the case. But the current status of what they know (as opposed to what they speculate) is somewhere around the level of those anatomists who were convinced that blood just “sloshed” around our bodies, before Galen came around and set them straight about circulation.

Investigations into neurophysiology will require a good deal (perhaps centuries) more research in both directions – reductionist, teasing out the minutiae of processes at the level of individual neurons and synapses, and expansionist, wrestling with those fields where science meets metaphysics: epistemology (the philosophy of knowing), ontology (the philosophy of being) and the respective claims of dualism (the ghost in the machine) versus materialism (the absolute primacy of brain processes).

Till then, marketers can ditch their dreams of “thinking machines.” There’ll be no genuine substitute for human intuition and ideas-men-and-women.

Sleep well adland – and keep creating.

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