Andrew Nicholls
Apr 17, 2019

We mustn’t let artificial intelligence make us dumb

While AI continues to change how we work, Andrew Nicholls at Carma Asia says the need for human intelligence to find meaning in these advances is more important than ever.

We mustn’t let artificial intelligence make us dumb

In the land of modern business, is the dataman king? There’s certainly no shortage of data in the world; according to an IBM report back in 2017 we had created 90% of the world’s data in the prior two years. Bravo us.

There is also no shortage of companies touting solutions to make sense of it all and invariably this involves a discussion about powerful artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities.

For some people, the prospect of machines ‘learning’ evokes images of robot soldiers marching back to base on the bones of their human enemies. In my experience, few of these people work in marketing and communications. For many marketers, AI and efficiency go hand in hand and efficiency is the altar at which the dataman worships.

Speed and automation of mundane tasks is something we can probably all appreciate. AI does the heavy lifting to help process vast quantities of data. It can be helpful, it’s certainly artificial, but is it intelligent?

Humans are creative, astonishingly adaptive and nuanced. Human communication is multi-faceted and suffused with complex emotional content. We recognise bias and understand subtlety, euphemisms, slang and sentiment in language. We are subject to a range of motivations which drive our behaviour. We are also prone to corner-cutting and inconsistency. 

To an industry of people striving to understand and influence human behaviour, the attraction of tools that automate, measure and provide ‘attribution’ to quantifiable outcomes is understandable. The dataman loves the idea of technology solving all our communications challenges, from supplying reliable research data to delivering our campaigns - the results invariably underpinned by several pages of chartporn.

Many within the communications industry bemoan a tendency to focus on short-term ROI that has risen with the availability of digital metrics. They argue that PR’s effectiveness sits closer to the top of the funnel and is harder to link directly to sales than the work of their colleagues doing ‘digital marketing’, who also have lots of shiny AI-powered tools to help them demonstrate ROI. Clearly, the tools can only be as good as the data they work on and if the data is inherently short-term (cookies for example) then this precipitates short-term decision making.

Anyone that has ever purchased something online and then spent the next few weeks being bombarded with adverts for the very same item they already bought knows that AI in marketing still has a long way to go.

The great work of Peter Field and Les Binet has shown us the most effective strategies combine long-term brand building efforts with short-term activation. According to Field and Binet the optimal split is 60:40 long to short. In essence - without the emotional, broader focus, longer-term brand building stuff, the short-term, micro-targeted promotional stuff becomes far less fruitful. Ultimately, if we don’t water the plant, there won’t be any fruit at all.

The rise of fake news primarily disseminated and amplified on digital platforms, themselves heavy users of AI, has left many asking what solutions the platforms involved can offer. So far, the best answer the tech giants have come up with is to mobilise thousands of human moderators.

Appen, a company worth US$1.75 billion, whose website promotes ‘data with a human touch’ uses a distributed freelance workforce of over one million people to ‘verify and enhance search results’ with Apple, Facebook and Google reported as clients. Companies like Appen address the need for a balance between humans and machines to deliver best-in-class products.

Sexy heatmaps and graphs might impress some clients, but the savvy decision-maker is far more concerned with the integrity of the data behind them. Humans are naturally curious and we need to maintain that when evaluating data solutions that rely solely on AI to deliver insights. As technology continues to evolve how we work, the leading providers will be those that harness the power of AI, without losing perspective on its limitations.

Human intelligence is the cutting edge when it comes to delivering insights in business. If you don't believe me, ask Siri, Google or Alexa for a second opinion.

Andrew Nicholls is Carma Asia's co-founder and managing director

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