Don't worry, sci-fi AI is not where we're heading
A view from Adrian Lee

Don't worry, sci-fi AI is not where we're heading

Rather than artificial intelligence, let's think of our future as one paired with "extended" intelligence.

Since becoming a dad about a year-and-a-half ago, one of the things I miss most from my pre-child days is going to the cinema, something that my wife and I enjoyed doing on an almost weekly basis.

Our second baby has just arrived, and I’ve never been more thankful that OTT services are pushing traditional terrestrial and cable TV to up their game; I don’t feel like I’m missing out quite as much as I would otherwise be. 

While I wouldn’t call myself a true science-fiction aficionado, I do know the difference between Tatooine, LV-426 and the much-loved and underrated Klaatu Nebula.

AI features heavily within this film genre, but, so often, it is painted as a very black and white picture. It’s either the impossible hero making the ultimate sacrifice to save the day by doing something a human would never be able to accomplish by themselves or, conversely, the bi-polar opposite, the manifestation of all that is wrong with technology, as it merrily sets out on a mission to destroy everything we hold dear.

How odd it is that there seem to be so many scriptwriters who think AI will be this misguided force, hell-bent on the destruction of mankind for its own good. It's a reflection of how the average person allows technology to increasingly pervade and have an impact on all aspects of their daily life. For every TARS from Interstellar, there seems to be a legion of murderous alternatives, such as Ash from Alien or HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I’ve started to wonder how much Hollywood’s portrayal of the much-feared singularity is starting to inform real scientific interpretations and views of AI (see the latest Elon Musk and Bill Gates comments.)

At Vizeum Global, we’ve just released our second trends video looking at what automation will mean for future generations and the way they will consider brands and advertising and make purchase decisions. My own, more positive, interpretation of AI is that we’ll reach a point where it transitions beyond mere servitude and will instead be perceived as a true extension of ourselves, enabling us to do more, do it faster and do it better. But key to its success is that at no point will it ever fully replace human involvement.

Clearly, our reliance on it won’t be limited only to personal use or the ad industry. It will also be in day-to-day decision-making affecting the governing of critical aspects of our society, such as regulation, monitoring increasing city urbanisation and optimising factory and food-production yields.

With the world only outputting more and more data, it is only natural that we’re reaching a point where we require automated computing power to interpret and act on this data. Not embracing this technology not only handicaps our progress, but will actually be considered negligent.

As much as sci-fi films love to portray AI as being understood and controlled only by "brainiacs" in lab coats sat behind giant supercomputers in the year 3000, the reality is that AI has already entered our homes and our pockets. We’re no longer buying internet-connected devices so much as training them like pets.

Ubiquitous person-to-person communication via chat apps has evolved neatly into person-to-AI interaction; you just have to look at the meteoric rise of Alexa, Siri and Cortana as proof of this. 

Compare the sudden relative normality of speaking to Alexa with the funny looks you still get when speaking into a mobile Bluetooth headset in public – and the latter technology had a two-decade headstart toward being considered normal behaviour.

We’re rapidly embracing automation, and that means artificial intelligence will become more like our own extended intelligence (EI).

With us no longer having to sacrifice mobility for capability, the devices we’ll carry will be just as powerful as what’s tethered to power sockets in our homes, and EI will be on-demand, just like all the other digital services we rely on. All those mundane, admin-heavy tasks sucking up our time can be initiated by us but then delegated to our personal digital assistants, making them much less labour-intensive.

Recommendation engines, too, will only improve in their complexity and capability, as EI will be able to analyse every aspect of our behaviour, studying not only how, what and where we do things online, but also how, what and where we are doing things in the physical world. Importantly, though, we will still control its access.

It will, in effect, become our digital guardian, monitoring everything from household-utilities consumption, data-protection against hackers and our children’s safe online browsing behaviour. It will inspire so much confidence that we’ll allow it to make more regular purchases on our behalf.

I can also see developments in this space leading to an interesting phenomenon where advertisers will spend significant sums on creating algorithms that advertise to and vie for the attention of our own personal-buying EI, in some cases removing the active involvement of people within the purchase journey, unless they choose to be involved.

This will obviously have a major impact on the way we look at the traditional consumer marketing funnel, as it means we’re no longer delivering a brand message to an actual person making a purchase decision.

In conclusion, then, while the dramatised reflection of AI makes for a good few hours of entertainment, it doesn’t help us get our heads round whether automation will help or hinder our day jobs, because in almost every case it forces us to review it through an "either/or" scenario rather than an "and" scenario.

The best thing we can do is identify how automation can augment and not necessarily replace what we’re already doing, and how its integration would allow us to do bigger and better things, enabling us to focus on what’s really important. Storytelling, rather than reporting of numbers, interrogating data, rather than just visualising it, and, ultimately, seeing automation as an opportunity to improve both our work and that of our clients, rather than considering it to be a looming threat.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot more "Netflix no chill" to cram in, while baby Lee, number two, sleeps.

Adrian Lee is global digital strategy and innovation diirector at Vizeum