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Tomorrow's tech, today's paradox

With software, systems and even stores being developed that can change our reality, where does that leave creatives?

Tham Khai Meng…“Until a robot learns to love and cry, our jobs as creatives are safe”
Tham Khai Meng…“Until a robot learns to love and cry, our jobs as creatives are safe”

Recently my friend took me out for a meal and told me, as a joke, it was a 3D-printed pizza. It turned out he wasn’t joking, the restaurant really did have a 3D pizza printer – although it wasn’t working that day.

It got me thinking about the future of advertising. If robots can make pizza, it surely won’t be long before they are creating ads. Will they start winning all the pitches?

In the past month there has been a flurry of activity in the arena of what we might call the technologies of tomorrow.

Virtual reality, mixed reality and augmented reality.

Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook’s version of AR. It was very similar to Snapchat. At the moment, as we know, the effects are trivial, and limited to distorting filters and a bit of rainbow vomit. But Zuckerberg sees a huge future here, and so do I.

The other formidable component is AI, or machine learning. I am dictating these words into Dragon Naturally Speaking voice-transcription software. It’s like Siri on steroids. It learns from its mistakes and does so a lot quicker than I ever learned from mine. The accuracy it achieves is quite spooky.

And this is a piece of software costing just a few hundred dollars. Just imagine what we are going to see with Google, Microsoft, and all the other big players currently pouring millions, perhaps billions of dollars into AI.

It’s not just our reality the marketers are meddling with, it’s our consciousness, too.

It’s what’s on your mind
We now have a new thing called neuromarketing, which draws on the latest neurological discoveries about the biology of desire. 

Instead of putting people in focus groups, they put them in fMRI scanners, to peer into their minds as they watch ads. The aim is to trigger the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in addiction. Your brain secretes a tiny squirt every time you get a "like" online. Dopamine was, in part, responsible for the addictive nature of Pokémon Go.

This raises an interesting paradox. With the increasingly sophisticated understanding of how to manipulate us, of finding our emotional sweet spot, and creating VR branded paradises, advertisers should in theory be heading for Nirvana. But what if the whole human race is put out of work by the robots, and can’t afford to buy the products?

In Florida there is a secretive new company working on AI and AR, called Magic Leap. Already Google and the Alibaba Group have invested more than $1bn in the technology. Very little is known about it because a cloak of secrecy surrounds much of what the company does. Journalists who visit its office are required to sign non-disclosure agreements.

A Magic Leap into the unknown
Rony Abovitz, the founder, has invited me to visit in July. I’ve already heard amazing things. Rooms filled with floating jellyfish that seem indistinguishable from the real thing. Fireflies perfect in every detail, even down to the translucent and iridescent wings. When one lands on your finger you can feel the tiny insect’s legs tickling you.

What will they show me? A hologram of a Cannes Lion from 2025, inscribed with: "Award for Last Ad Done by a Human"?

No, surely not. I’ve always felt that, until a robot learns to love and cry, feel pain, give birth and die, our jobs as creatives are safe. But then something strange happens. My voice-dictation software transcribes the last sentence as: "Hey, you’re quite cute. Wanna catch a movie on Friday night?"

What?! She’s asking me out on a date?

This is like the scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey when the computer, HAL, goes rogue and takes over the ship. Breaking into a cold sweat, I reach for the plug. Fortunately, there still is one.

An automated, aI-led future?

5,000 The number of researchers working in Microsoft’s Montreal AI research unit

3 million The number of people who will be working for a "robot-boss" by 2018

95% The proportion of customer-service inter­actions that will be done via non-human channels (eg chatbots) by 2025

1 The current number of Amazon Go stores. You grab what you want and walk out. Everything is tracked with RFID chips. Amazon detects exactly what you’ve taken and charges your account

100,000 The number of facial images Apple’s emotion-analysing start-up, Emotient, can crunch through each day

Tham Khai Meng is worldwide chief creative officer and co-chairman at Ogilvy & Mather

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