The bots cometh

Innocean's Scott Suthren tells us how to get along in our bot-filled future.


This story appears in the June issue of strategy.

I am a huge fan of science fiction. So much so that I have decided to try my hand at writing a novel about the problem of sentient machine minds.

Working with AIs (artificial intelligence) was once solely the domain of sci-fi characters. Now, thanks to Google, Facebook and a legion of researchers, what used to be fiction is now getting closer to fact through internet bots.

As an industry, we need to become part of the narrative and learn to work alongside bots or we risk being left behind. They will be more disruptive than VR and the Internet of Things in how they will take ownership and radically transform digital interfaces and ad agencies.

In a recent Globe and Mail article, the head of messaging app Kik was quoted saying bots that you can have a dialogue with inside a chat app will be the new web browser. He is absolutely right. Why go to a site rammed with info and ads when you can open a chat app and ask a bot to get you exactly what you need?

Facebook, Google, and many others are aggressively creating new bot options. Most of these are limited in scope now, but as more appear, their range and role as intermediary will expand.

Look at Amazon’s Echo, a device that sits in your living room and which is powered by its “Alexa” bot. Even in its nascent form it tells you the weather, plays music, reads news headlines, answers questions about basic facts and controls your house. “Digital assistant” bots will continue to broker more aspects of our lives.

The rise of bots also means that teams within agencies will be forced to accept challenging (and potentially humbling) relationships with AIs. Humans like to say that AIs can’t replicate our intuition, that they are best at logical, brute force approaches, and that intuition is the golden kernel in great marketing.

But there is increasing evidence that, when extrapolated, shows how bots could eclipse marketers by being creative and determining the best possible strategy to hit an objective.

Games between Google’s AlphaGo and professional Go player Lee Sedol are one example.

AIs are not supposed to win the game of Go because it relies on intuition or a “gut feeling” about the direction within a game. Also, the number of moves is more than any system can calculate through general computation.

But the creators of AlphaGo taught it to teach itself and in the process somehow unlocked its ability to intuit. Not only did it win the series (four games to one), but on the 19th move of the second game, it performed what was historically a human crown jewel. As previous European champion Fan Hui put it: “So beautiful.”

The move was so novel that Lee Sedol stood up and left the room, only to return and spend an additional 15 minutes studying it. AlphaGo eventually won the game. Some understood that they had just witnessed one of the most significant tipping points in our relationship with artificial minds.

If you still doubt the rise of creative bots, take a look at the current state of programmatic display ad technology. Success is defined by how effective the creative is in driving a certain call to action. To find the best version of that CTA, data is used to chop creative into multiple versions. Dozens of new options are pieced together by the system, based not on how much the agency or client liked the creative, but by how effective it is in achieving the task (for example, out of 80 creative variations of unit X, version 20 was most effective at driving conversions to site Y.)

Give a bot the raw materials, the objectives, and the channels to deploy it, add a powerful neural network that can teach itself, and I bet you will have much more effective and accurate creative results.

Bots can handle the combinatorial explosion that programmatic creative represents. Humans can’t. We also suffer from so many biases and assumptions that we can’t be consistently objective.

Marketing is best considered an algorithm, and our strongest role in the system may be on the receiving end of it.

Personally, I will welcome the bots. I’ll find a better, never-before-seen role to take on.

This quote from Kevin Kelly’s new book The Inevitable will be my mantra: “This is not a race against the machines. If we race against them, we lose. This is a race with the machines. You’ll be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots.”

Suthren ScottScott Suthren is director of strategic planning at Innocean Worldwide Canada.