Stepping stones to sentience
The holy grail of artificial intelligence lies in creating a sentient machine. And while this space is still very experimental, there is evidence that we aren’t too far away from machines being able to paint, write and draw with proficiency indistinguishable from the human hand.
Machines write poems
In March this year, The New York Times ran an online quiz that asked readers to deduce whether an algorithm or a human had written an excerpt of text. Standard fact-based journalism, opinion pieces and even poetry were thrown into the mix, and in each case it was incredibly challenging to determine the answer.
Aaron the painter
Algorithmic art has existed for quite some time, and in some cases simply requires the human to punch in a few instructions. But Aaron, an art-creating programme developed at Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, is completely different story in that it is being taught by its maker Harold Cohen to paint with more and more complex techniques each year. According to Gizmag, Cohen didn’t show Aaron any pictures but instead taught the robot with lists of object and body elements and the relationships between them. What is most striking about Aaron is that it isn’t instructed to paint anything; it simply paints whatever emerges from within the confines of its artificial imagination.
Google’s computers are underpinned by an artificial neural network, which takes inspiration from the brains of small animals. Recently, software engineers have been glimpsing into the passive musings (essentially dreams) of the network through a series of experiments designed to determine if the artificial intelligence is in fact learning. Usually the engineers would present an image, and the network would interpret what it is—this is the science behind image recognition. However, for the experiments, Google determined that it could reverse the process by presenting the network with an object and then asking it to generate an image of it. The result is a remarkable assortment of abstract interpretations of things that could easily be considered art.
Rinse and repeat
If marketers do look at the right numbers and see a desirable result, then this could encourage them to repeat a specific creative approach—leading to concern that automation could water down the level of creativity in the industry.
Parsons argues that this isn’t the case, and that the onus is on marketers to experiment when using the technology.
“Just pushing the same button over and over doesn’t really prepare you to do a great ongoing job; that’s lazy and complacent,” he says. “Constantly having a champion or challenger mentality and encouraging innovation adds to analysis, rather than detracting from it.”
However, marketing is, after all, designed to drive financial results, and creativity sometimes seems surplus to these requirements. Nowhere is this more evident than in the price-led retail advertising that shouts at the nation. In a recent interview with NZ Marketing, Countdown general manager of marketing Bridget Lamont provided a pretty matter-of-fact justification as to why retailers continue to engage in this form of advertising when they have so much creative firepower at their disposal: “Why do we do it? Because it works. Why do we put unaddressed mailers into 1.4 million letterboxes (which is just a paper version of shouting)? Because it works. I’m a pretty simple person. In terms of our media strategy, I’m going to advertise where the eyeballs are. In terms of our style of communication, I’m going to do the stuff that works.”
More recently, Countdown has also extended this approach to the digital channel through its highly successful email programme.
“We have a large database of around half a million customers we can communicate with via email, and 350,000 of these customers receive a myCountdown email each week,” Lamont says.
The emphasis of this programme isn’t so much on the creative presentation of the information, but rather on the level of personalisation in each communication.
“The sales uplift we see from highly personalised communications speaks to their effectiveness, and the more personalised we get the better our open rates. For example, our customers love knowing how much they have saved since we introduced Lockdown and we see open rates of over 40 percent when we give them an update on their savings total.”
This is not to say that every automated communication is going to be utilitarian in its execution. In much the same way television allows a single brand to deliver shouty and creative messaging, so too does ad tech facilitate the means by which to execute both. And Union Digital general manager Todd Wackrow believes that as the industry evolves marketers and creative agencies will become better at exploiting the opportunities offered by ad tech.
“Ad tech should [already] be opening up creativity, but currently there is a bit of a knowledge gap between the technical side and the creative and strategic departments within agencies,” Wackrow says. “To date, I think this lack of knowledge is holding back creative executions using ad tech, but as agencies and marketers become more aware of what is possible I see this changing rapidly.”
And Wackrow goes on to say that the real advantage of ad tech doesn’t lie with marketers but rather with the customers receiving automated messages.
“Ad tech will go to the next level when the industry stops thinking about what it can do for them, and starts to truly think about what it could do for the consumer,” he says. “There is a lot of negative talk about the data the likes of Google and Facebook are collecting, but ultimately I just see this as evolving to individuals having a personalised web. Imagine a world where every ad you see online is tailored to your personal tastes? Wouldn’t this be better than being hit with irrelevant ads?”
These personalised ads still need to be created. And while Google Creative Lab’s Tom Uglow has previously described creation as “a very complicated pattern-recognition algorithm”, it will still take some time to crack, meaning that creatives will still be required to develop the content that’s distributed through automated channels, despite the fact that Google can dream and machines are already writing poems (see sidebar).
In a recent blog post, DDB chief creative officer Damon Stapleton points out that technology in itself is not a solution.
“There is a tendency to hold onto the latest technology or system like it is some sort of panacea for all our ills,” he says. “This is something that happens in an uncertain world. It is natural to crave certainty. Certainty and creativity however are not a great mix … When the world is shifting and changing I think many believe storing up on knowledge and having a lot of information will be the solution. It will give you an exact answer. The truth is that even great answers ultimately give you more new problems to solve. And tomorrow the answers will have changed again. That is why we need thinking and creativity. These are the abilities that not only keep up with time but let us travel ahead of it. And time is not a single answer. It is an endless story.”
Further to this, Swiss futurist Gerd Leonhard recently visited the Spark offices in Auckland and shared the prediction that mass automation within the next five to ten years would abrogate around 40 to 50 percent of all jobs currently in existence. This, he says, would result in existing jobs being spread across the population more evenly, reducing the eight-hour workday and giving people more time to focus on right-brained creative activities, like painting, drawing, writing poetry and creating ads for programmatic networks (economist John Maynard Keynes believed this would happen too, but he severely underestimated the competitiveness of humanity). And while a touch far fetched, this prediction might provide at least a glimmer of hope to creatives who currently find their workdays stretching a little further as they develop numerous iterations of the same ad, lest something generic is served onto the tablet of a 26.7-year-old, stay-at-home father of triplets with a penchant for reading conspiracy theory websites on the dark web.
- This feature was originally published in the September/October edition of NZ Marketing magazine.