Deus ex machina: AI and bots in a modern marketing landscape

Every quarter e3 runs a thought leadership series on a trending digital theme to help us and our clients keep pace with consumer behaviour. Autumn 2016 heralds Experience as a trigger topic. With support from two of our closest technology partners, Sitecore and Rackspace, we are curating three live sessions and producing associated insights and white papers to share with collaborating brands and wider online audiences, on Artificial Intelligence, Cyber Security and Content Marketing.

The series kicked off with our first breakfast briefing: Deus Ex Machina: AI and Bots in a Modern Marketing Landscape, on Oct 19th.

Senior Marketers from a wide range of companies including B&Q, Virgin Money, Goldman Sachs and Cancer Research, joined us for an engaging and lively breakfast discussion. Nicola Hinds, Head of Strategy and User Experience at e3 and Zoe Camper, the visionary Head of Digital for Arthritis Research UK, provided illuminating presentations and an introduction to their current collaboration with IBM Watson. This live project combines artificial intelligence (AI) with sophisticated analytical software for optimal performance as a “question answering” machine.

Zoe Camper gave a first-hand account of putting AI into practice, particularly regarding the change in cultural mindset that it has required. It was clear over the course of the morning, even for those not yet implementing an AI programme, that it is imminently going to radically change our personal and working lives.

As the integration between human-based and machine-based intelligence becomes ever broader and alarmingly deeper, brands will need to evolve to survive this change. An increasing number of companies are already investing in AI - and investing big - in order to deliver new solutions to their customers in the coming months and years.

Certainly, it’s not something that can be ignored and even in the short term digital marketers will have to consider how to market to machines – as the conduit to people - rather than directly to end consumers.

Driving the advancement of all this is of course, the data that assists AI – so we as marketers really need to start considering what data our organisations’ have access to and how they can use it.

Why now?

Why is 2017 tipped as the year of AI? Machines have been assisting humans since the industrial revolution of the late 18th century and researchers have been working on AI since the 1950s – what’s happened to make AI so relevant to us all now?

Well, primarily it’s because we’re entering a new era where machines are beginning to challenge some of our higher intellectual capabilities rather than simply executing basic tasks. This isn’t being done in labs behind closed doors. These are mainstream practical applications that people are using and realising the benefit of every day.

In basic terms, there are two main types of artificial intelligence – weak form and strong form. Many weak form examples of AI already exist. That is, technology focused on a specific set of tasks such as spell-checkers, chess-playing games or self-driving cars. These technologies have a limited ability to learn on their own. They require access to datasets and domain experts and are aimed at solving specific problems. Strong form AI is some way off (although luminaries such as Ray Kurzweil think it could arrive by 2030) and refers to the creation of sentient machines with a humanlike consciousness.

While the application of weak form, task-based AI is very broad Nicola Hinds defined three key areas to consider:

  1. Data intelligence – various organisations, across many industries, are exploiting vast pools of data to connect information and form new insights that humans alone could not produce. What’s interesting is how senior these decision-making programmes are becoming, with various AI representatives now sitting on company boards or within senior management.
  2. Human interaction – increasing advances in natural language, visual perception, speech recognition and decision making technology will undoubtedly have an impact on the way brands must interact with their consumers – increasingly having to go through the medium of an AI layer to reach them.
  3. Human enhancement - perhaps the most striking (although least developed) application of AI technology is that which directly interfaces with the human body. Relatively few examples currently exist but rest assured this trend will have a significant impact on the way we live and work in years to come.

Talking of Experience, from experience

Contrasting some of the more future-oriented examples of AI, Zoe Camper provided a fascinating insight into Arthritis Research and e3’s recent experience implementing an AI solution.

Arthritis Research’s ‘2020 Vision’ identified the need for a significant strategic change – from focusing less on the world class research the organisation is renowned for, to ensuring people with arthritis and their medical needs exist at the heart of everything they do.

Having conducted extensive audience research through qualitative, quantitative and ethnographic means it was clear that the 10 million people in the UK currently living with arthritis, more than anything else, wanted clear and accurate answers to their questions about their specific condition - answers that would help them to alleviate their pain.

Given the vast corpus of academic research Arthritis Research UK has built up over 50 years of work, they knew they had many of the answers sufferers were looking for, but no way of providing that information to all 10 million people, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Which is where IBM Watson came in.

For the past few months Arthritis Research UK has been on an internal journey to bring their IBM Watson offer to millions. The solution is a chatbot called ‘Arthy’ – an AI-powered tool, available through a web browser (for now) that will one day answer all range of questions to help people with arthritis alleviate their pain.

Questions among the audience showed a general interest around the practical considerations raised by AI, such as how to recruit people with the right skills; how to prioritise and understand audience needs when building a chatbot; what methodologies to use in delivering the solution, etc.

Perhaps most pertinent of all however, was the articulation from Zoe that the practical challenges, while not insignificant, are nothing compared to the cultural shift it requires to embrace such a strategic challenge. In order to genuinely to deliver against Arthritis Research UK’s 2020 vision of putting people with arthritis at the heart of everything they do, the team responsible required a huge vote of confidence. Those at the very top of the organisation needed continually to say ‘yes, AI is a key part of the solution’.

Those at Arthritis Research know this is just the beginning of a longer-term investment as well – that Arthy needs time to evolve, to increase and refine its knowledge for a wide variety of use cases. And that could take years. Their vision is ambitious: to provide a personal assistant all 10 million people in the UK and millions more across the globe currently living with arthritis – one that will provide relevant, personal advice to ease their pain, 24/7/365.

Working on such an ambitious project has inspired the whole team - both those at Arthritis Research and all of us at e3. As Zoe put it, “a project like this brings people together. If you do something great, people will come”.

You can find more information about forthcoming events in e3’s Experience Series here. Register now for our Secure Experience and Content Experience events – spaces are limited and exclusive to senior brand marketers only.