You want emotional empathy from your AI? Make it George Clooney
A view from Lawrence Dodds

You want emotional empathy from your AI? Make it George Clooney

How should marketers decide how best to define the 'human' properties of their artificial intelligence?

In the run-up to Google’s 20th anniversary, its head of search suggested that voice services will shape the next 20 years. Indeed, voice assistants are already everywhere.

At the same time, consumers expect brands to communicate with them personally, even at scale. Artificial intelligence might be the best tool to deliver this, but AI has to pass the famous Turing Test and communicate like a human. It. Cannot. Talk. Like. This.

Demanding the human touch

When researchers in China created the Emotional Chatting Machine last year, 61% of people who tested the machine favoured the emotional versions. So brands looking to engender the right reactions, particularly through voice, will have to grapple with this new requirement for more human-like contact with consumers across all channels.

Many chatbots still rely on a simple decision tree and trying to match statements to predetermined input, rather than fully understanding the meaning behind the input. However, the Duplex technology shown off earlier this year by Google, happily making a restaurant reservation without sounding like a machine, shows how voice synthesis is already almost indistinguishable from the biological alternative.

That means there’s an opportunity for brands to deliver a more "human" contact across customer care hotlines, applications and other brand communications.

Brand purpose and personality will drive AI

So, how do marketers determine how best to define the "human" properties of their AI? The first step is to understand that the traditional brand purpose and brand personality have never been so important, since they are what ascribe "human" characteristics to a business.

It goes back to the marketing basics. Dust off both documents and ask yourself if you can imagine what your brand might be like if it were a person. Do you feel that it stands up in a world where this might be what governs the automated communications with your customers? When the brand speaks, does it do so with the right tone, but also with the right attitude?  

Brands have been carefully selecting celebrities they feel embody their values for many years. George Clooney as the face of Nespresso, for example.

But while he cannot be there all the time, digital brand ambassadors can. We’re going to see AI take on the form of the celebrities already featuring in other advertising channels to provide consistency across all touchpoints.

We’ve already seen TV ads employ virtual celebrities, such as a CGI Audrey Hepburn and Gene Kelly, and the virtual band Gorillaz. And Rogue One famously employed a CGI Carrie Fisher.

But faces are only the opening gambit. Next, we’ll see celebrity deals that transcend traditional ads and consumer communications, extending to customer care helplines, chatbots, generated emails and more.

Synthesised spokespeople will become the voice of the brand – quite literally. After all, having Clooney’s dulcet tones at the end of the Nespresso customer care line would likely generate a positive response. "Let me put you through to Paul," George purrs, "who’ll be able to help you."

Other brands already have virtual ambassadors they’ve created – Aleksandr Orlov the meerkat and Gio Compario, for example. AI will allow them to be even more ubiquitous.

But it’s not all about the cult of celebrity. Emotional intelligence delivered through AI will move into other areas of customer contact too, including aftermarket. When a stressed driver is in a traffic jam, for instance, the voice assistant in their car will have to read those cues and respond in a different way.

Consumers will expect brand contact beyond the purchase and EI coupled with AI is the best way to respond to this new demand. Of course, brands using AI to create voice-recognition systems for sensitive-subject helplines – for example, a quit-smoking assistant that follows your journey – will have to be able to clearly demonstrate empathy, not just intelligence.

What can brands do now?

As AI and voice technology grow more sophisticated and commonplace, brands will have to start thinking more seriously than ever about their persona. They will have to understand their audience so that they can tailor the brand personality. What vocabulary does your brand use? Is it working-class or posh? Should an American company have a British voice for its UK customers?

People want an emotional connection for almost every brand they favour – and, at scale, technology is the only way to provide it. It’s time to prepare for the Clooneyverse.

Lawrence Dodds is business director at UM