A view from Andy Nairn

Beware of autobots - adland's robots in disguise

What's this year's Big Idea?

The notion that robots are going to make us all redundant, of course. Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Sir Tim Berners-Lee have spoken on the subject in 2015. They’ve warned that artificial intelligence is advancing so quickly that machines could not only take our jobs, but potentially wipe us out. And because we’re easily excited types in our industry, we’ve swallowed the headlines hook, line and sinker.

Now, I’m not going to argue against these titans of science and business (although I would point out that their views are more nuanced than the reports sometimes claim). Likewise, I’m not going to pretend that our industry will be unaffected by this technological tidal wave (although, if I were an all-powerful super-machine, I’m not sure I’d choose a job in advertising). We can all see the impact that AI is already having on marketing, from programmatic buying to algorithmic learning and mass automation of customer service. Working with Amazon (whose Echo product has made waves in the States), we can also glimpse how this technology is increasingly having a direct consumer application.

But while everybody frets over the prospect of machines becoming more like us, I believe a bigger threat lies in the opposite challenge: the danger that we human beings are becoming more robotic.

In the AI world, this is known as the "confederate effect". The term comes from the Turing test: the standard methodology for measuring how human-like a piece of technology is. In this experiment, a research respondent interacts alternately with a machine and a person, and tries to guess which is which. While researchers are really focused on the deceptive abilities of the robot, there’s an interesting side effect whereby some of the human "confederates" are sometimes mistaken for robots.  

In one recent Turing test, the confederate’s responses were judged to be only 20 per cent human. But before we laugh at the conversational skills of scientists, it’s worth considering what some marketing campaigns would score these days. You know the ones: created by supposedly intelligent people but devoid of any humanity. Applying clunky formulae that might as well have been developed by robots. Churned out as "content" by media machines that feel automated, even if they aren’t. 

The irony is that AI could actually have a very positive effect on our industry if we embrace technology rather than fear it. It will free us up to refocus on the one thing that machines will never be able to produce: original ideas. On the other hand, if our creative efforts are so feeble that they can be mistaken for the work of machines, maybe we deserve to be wiped out anyway?

Andy Nairn is a founding partner at Lucky Generals