Two years ago, I wrote about the concept of anticipatory design, arguing that consumers will come to expect intelligent products and services that eliminate unnecessary decisions from their lives. Now, the artificial intelligence (AI) required to bring intelligent experiences to life is becoming a reality and marketers need to prepare for a new leap forward in the digital revolution: the smart internet. After two decades of change – from the introduction of the web to mobile and social media – the coming smart internet era will require more business adaptation than anything else to date. In this world, companies will have to evolve into “smart brands” to survive.
Artificial intelligence has been hyped as the answer to all of humanity’s problems ever since AI was first conceived at Dartmouth College in 1956. To everyone’s disappointment, it simply wasn’t possible for early AI initiatives to immediately live up to what we’d been promised in movies and pop culture, and until recently the field had been largely marginalized. But now AI is suddenly everywhere: Amazon Echoes were sold out for Christmas, Watson brought us closer to curing ALS, and Google’s DeepMind won the world’s hardest game. It won’t be too long until we all have self-driving cars, drone-based delivery and AI assistants so smart we’ll never have to work again.
What made this change possible? Cloud computing has given us an exponential increase in processing power and advances in computer science have enabled new ways to derive meaning from data. We’re getting better and better at training software to translate unstructured data into structured information. As a result, we’ve become adept at training computers to perform the kind of specialized tasks we humans normally associate with intelligence. We’re still a long way away from the kind of artificial general intelligence associated with C-3PO or something that can pass the Turing Test, but today’s computers are more than capable of things like recognizing your face in a photo, translating conversations in real time, and creating calendar appointments based on what’s in your inbox.
For the next few decades at least, the practice of artificial intelligence will consist of conquering discrete tasks like these, one after another, moving toward the promise of a computer able to mimic anything a human can do. While automation is a real threat to many of today’s jobs, incremental improvement in AI actually promises years of opportunity for marketers who keep pace.
Below are four key areas where marketers can start applying AI to evolve the way their companies interact with consumers:
We speak and send messages to each other, so why should we interact with computers differently? Alexa and Siri have proven that’s now possible for simple use cases, and all conversational platforms have or soon will have open APIs. As a result, there’s an opportunity for users to interact with companies through voice (Alexa, Siri, Google Now, Cortana, etc.) and text (Facebook Messenger, Slack, iMessage, etc.). As consumers become comfortable ordering an Uber via Alexa or a pizza via Dominos’ Facebook chatbot, they won’t understand why they can’t interact with your brand the same way.
The goal of personalizing experiences and communication has been around since the dawn of the internet. Now, machine learning allows us to make that dream a reality. Marketers can create products and services that learn from the behavior of their users and tailor their experiences like never before. We can design anticipatory experiences that make decisions on behalf of users based on their goals, preferences and behavior. Today, Netflix recommends the shows it knows its individual users will like most and Spotify’s Discover Weekly Playlists are one of the most popular parts of the service. In the near future, brand experiences will differentiate themselves by customizing all of their advertising, products, and services for their individual users.
The core promise of technology is task automation. Every major advance in technology has been fueled by helping people accomplish something important more quickly, less expensively, and with less expertise and effort than previously required. Companies like Uber and GE use automation for operational efficiency that leads to better products and customer experiences, routing cars and maintaining equipment. But much of the work an agency like ours carries out for clients involves automating things that are currently labor intensive as well. For example, machine learning is enabling us to identify and eliminate mundane tasks from the lives of both our clients and their users.
The essence of AI is the ability to detect patterns from data. These patterns can be things that people or conventional statistical models cannot detect themselves or patterns that normally require years of expertise to discern (for example, machine learning software now exists that can detect skin cancer from a photograph of someone’s skin). We can use machine learning algorithms to detect new patterns from complex client data, resulting in an enhanced ability to draw insights and predict future outcomes.
While it might seem like AI and machine learning are far from having an impact on the way your company operates and communicates with its customers right now, think about how much the internet, mobile and social media changed the way we live and work over the last two decades. When you factor in the ability for smart systems to become exponentially smarter, exponentially faster, the time to start planning for the next era of our industry is right now.
*A version of this article originally appeared in Forbes.