Catching AI, before AI catches us

Cheil's Matt Cammaert on why business leaders need to be mindful of the social and ethical impact of the emerging technology.

3d rendering of human  on geometric element technology background By Matt Cammaert

In Greek mythology, Proteus was the prophetic knower of all things past, present and future and, if captured, would shape-shift to avoid revealing his knowledge. In 1973, Demon Seed by Dean Koontz was released, a novel about an artificially intelligent super computer named Proteus that morphs over time into an evil being. Demon Seed, in many ways, foresaw IoT, the Connected Home, AI and the right-beneath-the-surface fears many people have when it comes to the technological determinism of our culture.

It is my opinion that we now live in a culture of speed in relation to technology that we are simultaneously enthralled and horrified by. If you are on the side of Koontz’s 45-year-old premonition that Proteus and technology represents the beginning of the end for humankind, then you are part of a questioning minority.

Technology that is artificially intelligent, which learns through usage, becomes smarter over time and morphs to become increasingly more powerful has many names: IBM’s Watson, Amazon’s Alexa (the fastest growing with the largest share of market at roughly 70%), Google’s Home, Samsung’s Bixby, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Apple’s Siri, to name a few.

To appreciate how pervasive AI voice-controlled digital assistants have become in their short existence, look at the numbers. Forrester reported that 22 million Amazon Echos were sold in the U.S. alone during the pre-peak holiday period. And according to Amazon, an additional “tens of millions” of Echo devices were sold worldwide. Forrester also estimates that by 2022, 66.3 million U.S. households will have one or more voice-controlled digital assistants. Consumers have demonstrated very clearly that they want technology in their lives (me included).

The business world is following suit, with TD Bank recently announcing a $100 million acquisition of AI firm, Layer 6. Imagine the speed at which you can get a loan, increase your credit, pay bills, or identify investment vehicles and invest faster. Now imagine the business opportunity. AI and voice-based AI are being used to augment complex internal systems and the customer experience, ultimately growing business and increasing profitability.

I fear, however, that we as a culture and as an industry have not addressed the social and ethical impact, as we tacitly welcome advanced technology into our homes, cars and pockets. The speed of ethical interrogation with technology must meet or surpass the speed of tech advancement itself. More to the point, who should take responsibility for the regulation and governance of the current and future state of artificially intelligent technology? Is it the government, Silicon Valley, companies and/or brands? Or is it us, the people who buy and use the technology?

We unquestionably live in a technologically exciting time, yet if we become too enthralled by the infinite possibilities and forget to calculate the cost and values lost with human experience, then it is unknown where we go or end up. We are in the early phases of AI and machine learning development and adoption. Brands and agencies need to play a part in this discussion and help shape the future. If we don’t start influencing these conversations humanity may find itself grasping at a mythological Proteus for answers. But, if we are not mindful, we might find Koontz’ Proteus instead.

Matt Cammaert is the president of Cheil Canada.