We’ve historically had a bit of a love hate relationship with robots and AI: Terminator (petrifying – when you’re eight), WALL-E (adorable), Channel 4’s Humans (whose side are they on anyway?), the movie Her (petrifying – and how can Scarlett Johansson be so smoulderingly gorgeous even when you can’t see her?).
Are we afraid of them or should we love them?
Stephen Hawking recently warned that the development of full artificial intelligence systems could spell doom for the human race. Experts across the fields of agriculture, manufacturing, medicine and education are predicting a future where blue and white collar workers could become obsolete. Will this mean a life of carefree leisure for us mortals, catered for by robot slaves, or should we be contemplating more of a Terminator scenario?
Ultimately are machines/AI/robots and their kind out to help us and serve us, or to undermine us, taking our jobs and ultimately crushing us in their bloodless arms?
Having stockpiled a few tins of baked beans to cover all eventualities, I feel like I can spare a moment to contemplate the implications that the bot genus might have for brands.
Certainly brands can use smart tech to serve us in our lazy human ways. Domino’s gets this and allows us to order pizza just by launching an app, or tweeting a pizza emoji. What’s not to like? At Red Bee we created the super charming and helpful ‘hub buddy’ to show guests around the new gizmo packed rooms in Premier Inn ‘hub’ hotels. Surely buddy wouldn’t crush a fly? He’s out to help, although you could argue he has taken someone’s job.
Equally handy, and to counteract the pizza AI, is online personal training, which has gone mainstream - kitted out with video conferencing and wearable tech. It’s effective, cost effective and convenient. You can ‘access your training program anywhere’. But would you miss being beasted by an actual human? I’m not sure my press ups would be quite as committed if my torturer wasn’t in the room.
Soon however we won’t even need to talk to humans online, as cheap, efficient, but currently naïve chatbots look be serious game changers. Earlier this year Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella suggested chatbots will have “as profound an impact as previous shifts we’ve had”. Similar to those provoked by the introduction of the web browser or touchscreen for example.
For now things seem a little less revolutionary. A chatbot from H&M can learn your style and recommend outfits which you can buy through H&M’s website. The Weather Channel bot can give you forecasts for your location for example, but only responds to quite prescriptive inputs. If you simply ask ‘How hot is it?’ - it melts. Guardian journalists have been affronted by its ‘passive aggressive’ tone, which is frankly not what you’d expect from a weather bot, even on a slow news day.
Putting shades of meaning to one side, tech can of course play an amazing role in our human relations, enabling us to Skype Granny in with the grandchildren and use Facebook to keep in touch with friends all over the world. So much so that we have on average 155 Facebook friends. But the truth is that only a fraction of those are genuine friends and we’d turn to just four in a crisis.
While I appreciate Facebook and its like are an interface rather than a ‘robot’ per se, they have come to fulfil a rather humanoid role in our lives. Many of us love being with her (Facebook. Or should ‘she’ be male in honour of her founder?) and quite a few can’t be without her. She impacts on our self worth and ‘real’ human relationships. Research at the University of Montreal found that young people with over 300 Facebook friends have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their system which can be a predictor of depression later in adolescence.
Jealousy of a partner’s smartphone is a common and well documented phenomenon. People who are more dependent on their smartphones, or whose partners are overly dependent on their devices, are less confident and happy in their relationships.
Is it when technology tries to take an emotional place in our lives that things can start to go awry?
Microsoft had their own well documented and cortisol raising run in with AI when they created their chatbot ‘Tay’. Tay had been designed to respond to users’ queries on Twitter with the casual, jokey speech patterns ascribed to a stereotypical millennial. It was trying to go beyond being simply useful and act like a mate.
But millennial humans don’t necessarily want a Microsoft chatbot mate, so they took matters into their own hands and messed with the robot’s head and algorithm, teaching it to say all manner of racist and inappropriate things. Within hours of launching, the 'teen girl' AI had turned into a Hitler-loving dope-smoking sex machine, forcing Microsoft to embark on some major social surgery, and eventually kill their own bot.
Whether we’re talking to genocidal bots or ordering pizza, we do tend towards the path of least resistance and this is often tech enabled. It’s so much easier to bank through your phone for example than trek to a branch to see a human who might be having an off day. This attitude saw the use of bank branches fall by 6% last year as customers channeled more transactions over phone networks and the internet. We’re creating this world. We’re voting with our feet (or thumbs).
Humans are irrational, chaotic and sometimes hung over. Robots are ordered and rule following, which is surely what you look for in help with your financial affairs. But, according to a Which? survey, in-branch customer service was still ranked better than internet customer service for all major banks apart from Barclays and First Direct. We still want that human interaction.
Of course we’ll continue to take the lazy option though. The truth is most of us are spending more time on screens than we do sleeping, which is at the same time shocking and unsurprising. Human interaction is reducing and this clearly poses a problem for brands. But people still want and NEED human relationships to love (brands).
Therefore brands need to get closer to their audience in new ways and the interface is a screen. The challenge is to create a digital experience or relationship that can feel as emotional as the original human experience.
What might this mean for brand communication? How can brands be human in this hyper connected multiscreen world?