Shut your eyes and trust in me
A view from Alfie Dennen

Shut your eyes and trust in me

What will happen to brands and advertising when virtual assistants do all our shopping for us?

'Hey Siri, play me something I'd like’. Contained in that phrase is all the promise of algorithms delivering us media and goods we didn’t even know we wanted, but also a subtext of automated purchase decision making on our behalf.

So, what happens when we trust intelligent agents to make our purchasing decisions for us? Advertising as we know it must shift from influencing a person to influencing the machines we give our trust to.

Our AI’s will be personal. They will know us better than we even know ourselves. We will trust them to choose our music, our restaurants, the butter we eat and even the clothes we wear.

…After all, our future AI’s will follow us, watch us, and observe our interactions -- including how long we glance at objects, our facial expressions and much more. In this future, shopping might be as easy as, "Buy me a new outfit for Saturday night’s dinner party."... Followed by a surprise-and-delight moment in which the outfit that arrives is perfect
- Peter Diamandis, SpaceX co-founder

The promise of this is just one step shy of arriving home and thinking 'argh I forgot milk' only for it to be waiting on the doorstep when you arrive - an algorithm somewhere knowing you had milk on your shopping list that you didn't include in your order that afternoon – the only missing ingredient is the full and complete transfer of trust to an agent that knows you better than you know yourself.

It’s not even hyperbole, in my opinion, this is a certainty. How long will it take? The following table showcases the change in trading for bricks and mortar retail in the states in the last 12 years (also from Diamandis).

It took 12 years for Amazon to grow its value by 4050% through leveraging machine learning, supply chain disruption strategies and small margin profits. Multiple estimates place Smart Speaker penetration into US households at 55% within four years.

Already, we trust them enough to buy, well, anything available on Prime. In fact, 62% of Alexa owners in the US have already used it to buy from Amazon Prime (they’re not perfect yet, as a spate of accidentally ordered dollhouses shows).

Forecasting how soon Google and Alexa et al will make the AI/machine learning breakthroughs necessary in making good purchase decisions for a given consumer is a lot harder to estimate, but what it comes down to is whether you think ML and AI are going to be capable of what I'm describing.

If we accept that an AI assistant which knows us well enough to make satisfactory purchase decisions without us needing to specify a brand choice might come to exist, then we must also accept that brand-led product advertising will almost certainly die in its current form. It means marketers need to think about a balanced strategy, particularly in commerce and can’t sit back with a strong brand and succeed with that alone.

So, what will these agents trusted with our values decide for us? We are becoming ever more influenced by the provenance of products, and our ability to track this has been getting better and better, a good example of this is the work on the blockchain by Provenance.org's 'Shore to Plate' work, tracing yellowfin and skipjack tuna fish caught in Indonesia from the fisherman to the point of sale.

When we ask Alexa to get us an outfit on Saturday night as Diamandis imagines above, many of us are not going to be satisfied just by it being great value, we’re going to want the ultimate choice made to conform to a huge variety of metrics we care about: How was it sourced? What does the company who made it believe in? Does that company champion equal pay for women? On and on and on.

We will imbue these AI agents with our intent, assured that when we ask our assistant to make a purchase that the good or service will be within our tolerances for corporate behaviour.

There has never been anything like that before. Fairtrade is a logo on a packet of coffee, a website that assures you but with no easily surfaced granular history. What we’re talking about here means that provenance will need to be reducible down to the individual who picked a bean from a particular plant. I use the example of a link in the blockchain as it is the best technology we currently have to achieve this, allowing any good or service's bona fides to be assured to any online trader servicing an online ecommerce platform.

What does this mean for us in the media marketing and advertising business?

It is an incredible opportunity. The next three billion people coming online by 2025 will be those most impacted by provenance, and it is in our remit to not only connect them to the world through digital but to ensure that their economic input is part of the foundation of how commerce will evolve.

Of course, it also means that advertising to people isn't how things are going to work as we progress.

Search, analytics, optimization, UX - the disciplines that have come to form the bedrock of modern commerce are those which will grow and evolve the most over the next handful of years, alongside disciplines that don't necessarily exist yet.

But we have to start now, not think about this as an imagined if probable future. So what are you going to do to change your business if you're convinced this is what the future is going to look like?

Alfie Dennen is product strategy director at Possible London