The premise of the just-released movie Her features a twist on one of the laws first formulated by Arthur C. Clarke (you know, HAL 9000’s dad): that is, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from infatuation. While no one will be marrying their computer anytime soon (well, probably not), it’s a movie that has stoked the fires of debate about our relationship with technology as Moore’s Law presumably continues to hurtle us forward into the Singularity…if we can prove interesting enough to the machines before they dump us for an intelligence more like themselves.
However, before artificial intelligence can solve the big problems of human existence like the meaning of life and death, companionship, and love — in a way that isn’t completely creepy — there are a lot of smaller problems artificial intelligence is solving currently (even as Siri continues to stew about her big-screen AI doppelganger). While Her may take place years in the future, part of its thesis speaks to the here and now: artificial intelligence is instrumental in helping us not only find better answers, but perhaps more importantly, in provoking us to ask better questions.
Nowhere is that more true than in my industry, online marketing and advertising. Even as far back as the time of Mad Men, businesses have been in constant pursuit of the “holy grail”: how do you advertise to exactly the right audience at the right time, in the right place, and do so while spending as little as possible? As advertising has now moved to online channels, that possibility has become tantalizingly tangible. An industry that once seemed guided by misty-eyed shamans like Don Draper is now the province of geeky “Big Data” scientists.
Just take a look at the current crop of industry buzzwords: that very same “Big Data,” “ROI orientation,” “target audiences,” “Cross-Channel Marketing,” “RTB and Programmatic advertising,” and the science fiction-ish “Artificial Intelligence.” As the real estate of advertising has shifted from the highway billboard and glossy magazine ad to the LCD monitor, it’s an industry where the ineffable artistry of Sterling Cooper & Partners has been replaced by the hard and cold Big Data science of names like Kenshoo, Adobe AdLens, IBM Coremetrics and Marin Software. All of these companies also have a significant and distinct advantage that will allow them to further crack the code of targeting the quantified, modern web consumer with absolute precision: an enormous amount of data collected over the years, especially around activity like online ad buys, impressions and clicks.
Not to mention the innovation giant, that also happens to be probably the most successful company in the short history of online advertising: Google. “Google Analytics” is a great tool to analyze exposure of ads in channels such as Google AdWords (if you set it correctly to track transactions on your website). Even a tool as effective as Analytics can only take you so far, though, given the fragmented audiences of online platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.
However, artificial intelligence and our own intelligence will probably find a way to adapt to these multivariate platforms; look no further than Facebook’s formation of its own artificial intelligence team last September. You can be sure the giant social network’s motivation behind such an initiative isn’t to gauge the proper ratio of duckface selfies to every other type of content in a user’s news feed. Facebook’s post-IPO recovery has been driven by its emphasis on its targeted ad products, and it will undoubtedly leverage its own unique data store to improve advertising-by-AI not only on its platform, but with applications that will be relevant to the rest of the online universe.
All that being said, there’s still a long way to go before the entire industry is handed over to the artificial intelligence machine. For better or worse, campaign managers are still about managing campaigns, not software. No one has unlocked the perfect solution to scaling AI in a way where we can begin to turn over whole campaigns without any sort of human guidance and tweaking. However, even in its rudimentary form, AI-driven online advertising has come as close as anything to cracking the tough nut of online advertising; just look at the success of the aforementioned AdSense and the influence artificial intelligence has had on it.
The companies I mentioned will lead the pack in creating the second generation of AI-backed solutions that can scale with a large volume of information, but it’s also a growing space where smaller and innovative companies can also lead in finding new ways to apply AI. At its core, advertising is about finding the way to not only divine human intention, but drive that intention to brand attention and the action of purchase. It is a kind of game theory laboratory uniquely qualified for the demonstration of artificial intelligence. The same engine that can determine the perfect ad buy won’t be that much different from the one that ultimately knows how to comb Joaquin Phoenix’s email to generate perfectly crafted pillow talk. The message from the future for those in online advertising is clear: resisting the integration of artificial intelligence is, well, futile.