Monday, 30 May 2016

Making sense of artificial intelligence

This post originally appeared on the CMO website on 10 May 2016.

When new trends and technologies burst onto the marketing scene, there’s always a frantic effort to either keep up or provide guidance, especially when serious amounts of money are involved. It happened with social media, it happened with personalisation and “Big Data” (it’s just data!), and it’s happening now with Artificial Intelligence. We’re approaching the top of the hype cycle where, like teenage sex, everyone is talking about it but very few are actually doing it. Conditions are perfect for the snake oil salesmen to move in. But there’s real substance behind some of work being done in this field, and in this blog post I’ll try to navigate through the fog of rhetoric to understand what’s required to make the most of the significant opportunities.

To go forward, let’s first look backwards. AI has been a popular subject in science fiction for decades, often running alongside robotics to create some of the most original storylines of all time, from the utopian (Star Trek, Her and I, Robot*) to the dystopian (Blade Runner, 2001, The Matrix and The Terminator), and everywhere in between. And, as a result, the term has become attached to the future, framing expectations around the art of the possible in the present.

As with all science fiction, it serves as inspiration for the people working on real life applications. We still have a way to go before we catch up with fiction, but actual developments have — in their own way — been no less notable. The Bombe that helped to decipher Enigma in WW2 meets the definition of AI, and it wasn’t the first of its kind. Machine learning has been around since the fifties, growing alongside the development of computers, and held back mainly by computational power. More recently, as processor growth has followed Moore’s Law, the high profile milestones have come thicker and faster, from Deep Blue beating Garry Kasparow in 1997, to Watson winning Jeopardy (and now trying to cure cancer), to Google’s DeepMind beating Lee Sedol at Go, through to Facebook’s Bots unveiled at F8 recently — one can argue that all of these qualify as Artificial Intelligence, and each one nudges the industry forward in a different way.

When developments in the real world start to mimic science fiction, this will get a lot of attention. We can anticipate lots of stories like this in the coming years. Apocryphal headline grabbers such as the Microsoft Barbie Bot will gradually be replaced by the exceptions-that-prove-the-rule such as the recent incident with Google’s self driving car (a.k.a. Johnny Cabs). The really big advances will come when we crack something called general artificial intelligence, and experts concur that we’re many years away from that, but in the meantime we can expect an array of intriguing developments.

There’s a clamour of investment taking place, usually a good sign of fire behind the smoke. From 2% of VC investment in 2013 to 5% in 2015, interest is significant and growing. Google, Facebook, IBM, Apple, Salesforce, Cisco, Intel and many more have invested hundreds of millions in this space over several years, particularly in the AdTech and finance fields. Our parent group Publicis.Sapient has bought a minority stake in Wired luminary (and all round good guy) Kevin Kelly says “The business plans of the next 10,000 startups are easy to forecast: Take X and add AI”.

So let’s take a step back and ask: What is AI? If you look at the dictionary definition, it’s a broad church. Arguably, a simple calculator qualifies as artificial intelligence. So, yes, I can see startups, vendors and suppliers claiming that their products and services include an element of AI. No-one can claim AI is a new thing, but it will sell regardless, so look out for wagons being hitched to that horse.

One way to start conversations with vendors, partners, and potential recruits and employers is by asking them what they mean by the term artificial intelligence. As with Big Data and Innovation, it means different things to different people, and a time can be wasted assuming you’re on the same page. There are fast moving developments on many different fronts, so it’s tricky proposition to pin down. We’ll need to develop our lexicon before we can sort the wheat from the chaff.

In the marketing and technology sector, this territory is (currently) dominated by the data scientists. The challenge extracting value from huge data sets is in some ways fueling the interest in AI. The goal here is to make even better use of data to support strategic planning and drive real-time decision making, reducing our dependency on expensive, fallible data scientists and customer support staff, and increasingly automating the next steps without human intervention. There is already a wide range of examples in this space, from automated pricing to predictive customer care, from personalisation to ad targeting, and more. This list of 15 examples is worth a scan.

And as time goes on we can expect these services to become more accessible to less technically-minded people. There has also been plenty of talk about bots, especially after Facebook introduced a way of embedding bots in their Messenger app (used by 900 million people, so it deserves attention). They refer to it as a hybrid between language recognition, decision tree mapping, and customer care — so essentially it’s a form of Interactive Voice Response for text. For the best examples, check out Poncho and either CNN or the Wall Street Journal on Messenger. The demos look good, but early results are poor. And even when it improves, this only barely qualifies as AI — until it reaches a greater level of sophistication it’s mostly creating the illusion of intelligence because of its dependence on pre-determined decision trees. That isn’t to say the bot approach isn’t worth exploring — far from it. Just don’t get lulled into thinking you’re in the vanguard of artificial intelligence while you’re at it, and get ready for a frustrating time in the short term.

While general artificial intelligence might be many years away, it’s worth keeping an eye on emerging developments in that space as well. They’ll probably be useful well before they hit their stated goals. One of the more interesting developments is, a service being developed by one of the ambitious Siri co-creators, Dag Kittlaus.  Not only does he want to create a cloud-based platform for finding connections between disparate data sets, he wants to put a universally-recognised voice interface on it. He’d like his ‘V’ logo to be as ubiquitous as the bluetooth logo, so we know how to engage with the system. Apparently we speak 3-4 times faster than we write, so this makes sense so long as the system isn’t plagued by the same challenges as Siri or Google Now. When it comes to voice interaction in general, the early signs from Alexa (from Amazon) are very promising, so maybe we’re on the cusp of a breakthrough here.

The broad consensus is that we shouldn’t think of AI as simply improving the tasks we currently perform. We should also think that it can approach problems in completely different and unexpected ways to achieve much greater outcomes (with AlphaGo’s behaviour being a great early example). “Reinforcement learning” — teaching computers how to learn for themselves — appears to be a more fruitful approach than “human teaching” or decision tree mapping, as it’s  less constrained by our own human shortcomings. This is also where Neural Networks such as this interesting experiment from TensorFlow come in. In their own words, the network is “asked to solve a problem, which it attempts to do over and over, each time strengthening the connections that lead to success and diminishing those that lead to failure”. It’s a general principle that applies to one of the most interesting areas of AI.

On this front, we don’t know exactly where the emergence of Artificial Intelligence will take us, which makes the whole venture so exciting. Certain aspects — those relating to general artificial intelligence — will be exponential by their very nature. That’s when things get scary very quickly, and for a taste of that I highly recommend this Wait But Why article. When people like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking says there’s a significant danger, it’s time for all of us to sit up and take notice.

In the short term though, we can start looking for opportunities to exploit AI technologies as they mature and generate new forms of value. It’s important to get a early, solid understanding of how the opportunity can be exploited and, as with the technology waves that came before, a few well-chosen bets may pay off handsomely. She who dares wins, but let the buyer beware!

*We’ve had some fun debates in the studio about whether these qualify as utopian or not! Some say that Her was actually dystopian because it represents a sad version of humanity, but maybe society itself was utopian and it’s humanity that’s flawed. One thing’s for sure — it’s a better world than The Matrix!

Monday, 2 May 2016

Customer experience is the new brand

This post first appeared in the now decommissioned STW blog, as well as the DT blog, back in July 2012.

We are living out our careers on shifting sands. But from here, in our offices and behind our desks, it’s easy to lose sight of just how big these changes are. ‘Shifting’ doesn’t quite capture it.

The seismic transfer of power and influence from large organisations to individuals is increasing at an extraordinary rate. Governments have literally fallen. Business models haven’t just been disrupted –they’ve been obliterated. Virtually every sector is undergoing reconstruction from educationsport, and politics, to commercefinance and entertainment – the list goes on. And citizens have the power and tools to self-organise on a global scale.

It’s human nature to play down the extent of these changes, especially when our careers have been built on the status quo. Our brain is simultaneously tricking itself that it understands complex scenarios more than it actually does, and then prompting decisive action based on these assumptions. It’s a defence mechanism for trying to cope with such dramatic uncertainty. The reality is that the rate of change is, itself, increasing, further reducing our ability to predict the future – never mind understand the present.

Commentators occasionally draw parallels with the impact of movable type. There were plenty of naysayers – religious leaders, mostly – who did their best to resist the inevitable. In that case, it took several decades for the physical apparatus to spread through the cities of Europe before the impact was felt. We’re dealing with an entirely different phenomenon today, and given the proliferation of devices and technologies, and near-instant impact of innovation, we can expect to see a dizzying array of changing behaviours. The revolution is just getting started.

It’s clear that hoping things will calm down isn’t a strategy for success. So let’s face facts. Our customers have developed bullshit detectors, finely tuned to sniff out marketing messages that are style without any substance. They have (almost) complete control over the messages they receive, and can filter out unwanted distractions with ease.

But exhibiting style with substance through conventional marketing channels is fine, and helps to establish a brand identity synonymous with integrity, purpose and dependability. There are emerging tools and techniques for making sure your company still has the potential to get in front of customers and exhibit this substance. Where do you start?

The simple answer is that you start with the customer, and work backwards from there. And straight away you can see an important parallel with conventional marketing. But the key difference is where conventional marketing seeks to obfuscate the customer into easily digestible abstract chunks, ready for broadcast, the new approach cozies up to customers with all their foibles.

People are messy. They have a dizzying array of needs, wants, ambitions, drivers and motives. They have affairs, commit crimes, lie, and think they’re entitled to better customer service than everyone else. They’re also friendly, and charitable, sexy, and have lots of other great qualities too.

And if you’re not listening to them, and working with them, on their terms, then one of your competitors will do this for you.

The trick is in acknowledging that people are messy, and can interact with your brand in any multitude of ways. Not only that, they can bob and weave across literally dozens of potential touchpoints – TV adverts, word-of-mouth, twitter, facebook, web site, shop, phone, letter, eDM, banners, posters, morning TV shows, newspapers and many more.

The touchpoints which the customer trusts the most are those which you seemingly have little direct control over. If someone complains about your product on twitter, the potential reach is global and instantaneous.

And this is what I mean when I say that Customer Experience is the new brand. Word of mouth has long been trusted by customers above advertising, but now the tools of the internet have amplified word of mouth to the point where it eclipses messaging in the paid media space. All with a flick of the wrist.

As this new world order takes shape, a few things become clear. First, the companies that will be the most successful are those who share the same values as the customers they seek. This can’t just be a veneer, the companies have to actually have and care about these values, and demonstrate this across the various touchpoints. The business of developing and communicating these values internally will increase greatly in the years to come – and the challenge for larger companies is articulating how these values should be applied across every touchpoint in a way that makes sense to employees.

These values are important enough that you shouldn’t hire people who don’t exhibit them. Even the HR department needs to be customer centric. And if you’re thinking that exposing your staff to your customers is risky, it’s worth remembering that people expect human behaviour in the social space. Mistakes will be forgiven so long as you’re quick to admit them. People don’t want you to be perfect – they want you to be useful. And honest. And reliable. What’s more, given the volume of activity across the social space, giving staff support to engage on behalf of the company is one way to make sure the adventure scales.

But the truly great thing about these company values is that, once you’ve defined them, they’ll become the lights that guide every execution across all those touchpoints. You can use these values to drive consistency everywhere.

Think about it this way. To succeed in the social space, you need to earn trust. As Doc Searls and his band of Cluetrainers have said for years, first you have a conversation, then you build a relationship, and only then can you pursue transactions. You need to exhibit human qualities to get there. Empathise. Show some humility. Recognise and demonstrate that you need the customer far more than they need you.

The customer experience across every digital touchpoint – whether paid, owned or earned – should be akin to a good waiter in a top restaurant, or a concierge in a top hotel. The thought given to the customer should be evident by the ease with which they can meet their goals. They should be able to move seamlessly, joyfully through the system.

Pick your technology very, very carefully. Decide what you want the technology to do before you select it. Amazingly, the majority of companies still don’t do this. If you’ve already selected a platform before deciding what you want to do with it, you may have a big problem. Remember that an optimum customer experience is now the cost of operating in a competitive environment. Can you afford to use the wrong platform, if it delivers a sub-optimum experience? Probably not.

You might ask where advertising comes into this. David Ogilvy wrote, back in 1963, “Every advertisement should be thought of as a contribution to the complex symbol which is the brand image”. I would argue that this is just as true today as it’s ever been. The web has simply reasserted more transparency on the value of marketing alongside the value of a quality product or service – the former can no longer paper over the cracks of the latter (incidentally, the vast majority of Ogilvy’s advice stands true today. His books are well worth a read).

At first blush, this emerging landscape may seem rife with risks and threats. But once again you can fall back on one of your traditional marketing tools – the good old SWOT analysis. Many of these threats can be turned into opportunities. But it has to happen from the inside out.

Those readers who frequently attend conferences will be sick of the sight of comparisons with Apple. But, from a customer experience advocates’ view, they’re a godsend. Here we have a company which claimed 9% of the market share for smartphones, and 75% of the profit. 75%!! Proof positive that people are willing to pay big bucks for a premium customer experience.

But look at the other end of the market. At the time of writing, Nokia has just fired 10,000 people, and their stock fell 19%. Again, proof positive that there isn’t room in that specific market for someone not providing an amazing customer experience. Is there room in yours? If so, how long do you think that’ll last?

And if you can develop this awesome experience across every touch point, it has an all-important cumulative effect. And it turns out that you *can* influence word-of-mouth. As your great reputation gathers momentum, you’ll wonder why you ever failed to put the customer experience at the heart of your business.

Of course, there will be those among you who will say that nothing important has changed. Certain companies have always been synonymous with good service, and made a tidy profit as a result – well before the age of the internet. But my point still stands; the advent of the internet has heralded a new era of brand transparency, with much more to come. And in this emerging landscape, Customer experience will become more and more important to the point where it’s far and away the most important aspect of running a business.