A view from Will Harris

AI: Don't rage against the machine

The remarkable rise of artificial intelligence will certainly change our lives but needn't threaten our existence, writes Will Harris.

If I get a slightly later train in the mornings, I am treated to the spectacle of one of TV’s most eminent former newsreaders holding court for the benefit of the carriage.

Sprawled across two seats with a laptop open at the William Hill site, briefcase pushed across the table and a six-inch stack of all the UK newspapers, he humps and preens his way to London. A newcomer is fixed with a steely glare. "Recognise me?" he says. "I’m important. I used to read the news to you."

I’m normally too busy to let it bother me. But at the end of the ride, as the train scrapes its way into Waterloo, he takes the entire stack of newspapers and dumps it on the floor before scurrying out. This incenses me. I don’t know if it’s the waste of unread copy, painstakingly crafted by underpaid hacks, or the mindless littering that offends me most. Either way, it is infuriating.

I’ve got a number of choices. I could confront him ("Hey, Alan Partridge. How about taking your mess with you?"), troll him online or just tell everyone I meet the story of what an idiot he is.

As with a faded popinjay of a newsreader, so too modern contemporary brands. Faced with a bad experience, customers have exactly the same three choices. As consumers, we’ve learned that if we moan loudly and publicly on social media, the brand owner will come running, often bearing gifts.

When you look round the corner, you see machines becoming so much smarter than we are at monitoring what’s really going on. Cars that tell you when they are about to have a fault rather than just seize up on the hard shoulder. Bots masquerading as people in Facebook messaging apps. Digital assistants controlled by a squawk box in the kitchen; you shout your question at the empty room and it serves up the answer without a keystroke.It’s a sort of unofficial life hack, but one with a definite shelf life.

Once everyone knows that’s how the game is played, the brand owners will have to change the rules in favour of something slightly more sophisticated and less expensive. Because sophistication is what is on the way.

As consumers, we’ve learned that if we moan loudly and publicly on social media, the brand owner will come running, often bearing gifts.

Watching Google’s press conference made me wonder whether future generations will laugh that we used to be sent a string of blue links to click as they sit around talking to the internet.

Drones are probably the most exciting next steps in tracking and reporting. Much of the recent editorial has centred on their ability to scare the bejesus out of pilots coming into Heathrow but, when matched with big data, things get more interesting. Farmers are using them to monitor crops and animals remotely.

My favourite example is the connected cow, where the animals are wired up and monitored for vital signs and movement patterns just like a Formula One driver. Fruit plantations are monitored from the air and the imagery compared with the prior year to identify troubles early. Individual trees and groves can be singled out for special attention ahead of time.

It’s a brave new world out there, with data fizzing around in real time between dumb objects and fast-thinking machines. And then there is TalkTalk customer service. Or Vodafone. Or Sky. Or any other large business you care to mention.

Presumably the golden age of artificial intelligence that Google proclaims will mean I can get my unwanted Vodafone line cancelled and the money refunded when every other effort has failed? Where does that leave the brands, marketers and agencies?

We’ve coped masterfully with the last ten years of our predicted demise and are still an important part of the economy and even the overall narrative. How are we going to remain relevant and and contemporary in this lightning real-time world that is being built around us? I for one have faith that we will adapt and stay in control of the machines.

Perhaps, because of our in-built inferiority complex about this quasiprofession of ours, articles like this don’t open about people like us on the train.

Digital assistants

Digital assistants are voice-activated tools that aim to bring more convenience to users’ lives by answering questions and performing tasks.

They aren’t entirely new – Word’s Clippy character was an early version. Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon are the main contenders thrashing it out to build the best one.

Apple’s Siri
Running on iOS, Apple launched Siri on its iPhone 4S back in 2011. Since then, it has made several updates to sharpen up its performance, like the ability to open apps hands-free.

Google Now
This personal assistant is embedded in Google’s Android operating system and available on Chrome. It draws on Google’s various apps, such as Calendar and Gmail, to make recommendations for the user, in addition to performing tasks. For example, it will remind users about travel plans.

Microsoft Cortana
Cortana works across various Microsoft products including Windows 10 and Xbox. It stores users’ personal information in its notebook, meaning it can be easily accessed on request.

Amazon Alexa
Unlike its rivals, Alexa isn’t tied to a computer or smartphone. It works through an Echo speaker that can be placed anywhere. As well as playing music on command, it can answer questions and tell jokes.

Will Harris is the strategy director at Karhoo