David Shing
Nov 22, 2016

Where will AI end and the human touch begin?

Artificial intelligence will become an essential part of the way brands relate to customers. The question, for AOL's David Shing, is how brands will manage the handoff between AI and human interactions.

David Shing
David Shing

Chatbots are treated like the simpletons of the AI world, overshadowed by the likes of IBM’s Watson, the supercomputer that can ingest large amounts of unstructured data to relate to consumers, even producing ads tailored to each person’s interest and needs. It’s a step forward from the powerful suggestion engines of huge etailers.

Chatbots are still around, though, providing an interplay between human and machine that is a prerequisite for any brand or advertiser hoping to make it in a world profuse with new and amazing digital experiences. 

But when do we “hand off” the experience from the machine to the human, and vice versa? 

Programmatic targeting is facing a similar issue, in an industry unsure how the coupling mechanism between human and machine should work. For example, the New York Times has accurate data on its audience, but also has a deep journalistic history and pedigree—a context that is lost on a programmatic robot. It takes the human touch to correctly leverage this pedigree.

With programmatic we can reach the right person at the right time in the right place, millions of times a day, but it all falls apart without creativity. We’re still struggling with that handoff. Programmatic technology gives us such incredible and detailed access, but requires truly innovative creative and stories only humans can put together. 

The challenge will be thinking about creative from a whole different view: can we have creative that scales? That customizes itself? We find ourselves hurtling towards another handoff from human to machine: What larger system of creative or complex storytelling structure can I design such that a machine can use it appropriately and effectively? 

Asian diversity makes tailoring creativity much more pronounced than in the West; with so many languages, economic disparity, cultural differences and attitudes. Developing an ad that crosses many borders is a significant issue in itself, before you start breaking it down further to provide contextual content, or bespoke conversations.

Therein lies the real challenge: finding the correct interplay and balance between human and machine. This is not a battle. The regularly touted human versus machine conflict simply does not and should not exist, especially when it comes to brands and marketing. Data feeds the weak AI we have now, and it produces spectacular results. But eventually, humanity must intervene, as evidenced by Microsoft’s Twitter experiment—which rapidly learned to be racist—or Facebook’s censorship debacles. Clearly, humans still has a huge edge in understanding cultural context, proprietary, and much more. But, just as clear, is the machine’s ability to perform quickly and accurately at scales beyond human comprehension. 

I finished writing this piece on a bus rolling through a typhoon in Tokyo. A quick trip to Google will show you how obsessed the Japanese are with packaging. In a world where everything comes in a brown Amazon box, perhaps packaging is not something we think about as much anymore, but I do. Packaging is perhaps the earliest physical form of marketing and differentiation.

If done correctly, packaging does one of two things: it disappears smoothly into the background of our consciousness because it is so seamless, beautiful, and convenient, or it adds a dimension of delight and wonder to the unboxing process. Packaging also needs to reflect culture and demographics. I consider chatbots to be brands’ attempt to package themselves for social media, with the same need to reflect a huge number of variables.  

The human-machine handoff is a central problem in our continued development of social media. We’ve created all these social networks to facilitate and augment our interactions. Now all we do is complain about how they’ve made interacting more difficult, more awkward, less real. It is a quixotic paradox: how do we design for interactions that are not meant to be noticed? How do we package something in such a way that it melts into the background or becomes, itself, a meaningful part of the experience?

Clearly, chatbots and other similar attempts to bridge the human-machine gap have not made it there yet. But the question of perfect synergy between human and machine is of tantamount importance because we sit on the verge of widespread AR, VR, and 360 video adoption. These technologies demand something better, seamless, creative, and novel. In completely immersive experiences, any cracks in the interplay between human and machine is immediately obvious, and immediately drops the viewer out of the experience. 

David Shing is digital prophet at AOL

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