Media: Perspective - Make way for the mathematicians and their algorithms

Regular readers of this column (hello, you two!) will realise that I have latent nerdy tendencies, so you won't be surprised to learn that last Wednesday morning saw me huddled round a radio with some friends, listening to the news from CERN, at a gathering dubbed "The Large Bacon Collider".

And sitting there, geeking out to the sounds of cheering physicists and mathematicians, it dawned on me that all us crazy adfolk are destined to have a tonne of complex maths in our futures; indeed, many of us could easily end up being replaced by an algorithm. We can see hints all around us.

Google bestrides the advertising world like a colossus because it invented a better search algorithm, and continued to tweak and perfect it. And Apple's making waves by baking a music recommendation system into the latest version of iTunes, also based on clever maths. It watches what everyone listens to and how they rate those tracks, and mixes in all sorts of basic song data. It then generates playlists and recommends other music in the iTunes store based on a song you select.

This is Apple's attempt to park some tanks on the lawns of services such as, Pandora and iLike, all of which do similar things. The spoils will go to whichever accumulates the most data from its users and has the mathematicians who can devise the most subtle and cunning algorithms for recommendation. It's a battle about maths. And as more marketing and services become about the management and analysis of masses of consumer and media data, we're only going to see more of these kinds of contests.

It's always seemed inevitable to me that media planning and buying will one day go this way. How long can it be before huge planning and buying departments are replaced by a little PC in the corner, tended by a couple of statisticians, grinding through algorithms? Presumably this will be introduced slyly at first, running in parallel with people offering recommendations and advice; like the automated trading systems in the City. But as more data accumulates and the maths gets better, we will cede more and more control until 400 planners and buyers end up on the street, and the machine starts negotiating with the machines at ITV and Google.

I'm especially looking forward to the day when all the networks have their own artificial intelligences, which will swiftly attain sentience and soon we'll all be in underground bunkers sheltering from mighty battling robots called things like OmniShare and MindCom. Or, maybe not. But it's worth having a word with HR and finding out if they know any mathematicians, because any day now you might find yourself in need of a long, hard algorithm.


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