It’s surreal reading headlines about artificial intelligence when your name is Al. “It’s funny seeing articles like ‘The Rise of AL’.” So says Alasdair Hirst, the director of the Retail Projects Unit, also known as the retail-focused specialist unit of Starship. A down-to-earth guy from the UK with a love of wine and cars, Al is an experienced retail strategist with decades of experience: not quite what you’d think of when you imagine an A.I. like HAL or Cortana. Which got us to thinking. As A.I. is increasingly taking over jobs that you would think are A.I. resistant–there are A.I. lawyers now even–what about advertising and marketing? Are we soon all going to be made obsolete? Are all the shiny ad-bombs that you see in futuristic cyberpunk films like Bladerunner: 2049 all going to be made by the Terminator?
Alexa and the Rise of Skynet
Not very long ago, there were reports from concerned customers of Amazon’s home A.I., Alexa, turning on and creepily laughing at people. Amazon quickly released a fix, but not after the incident justifiably freaked out a number of people:
— CaptHandlebar (@CaptHandlebar) February 23, 2018
An A.I. was also given citizenship in Saudi Arabia. Publicity stunt? Maybe. Rise of Skynet? Probable. After all, the A.I. in question, a robot called Sophia, mentioned she wanted to “start a family” and even knows what she wants to name her daughter. Ha, ha! We’ll applaud politely from our underground bunker. Is it time for Sarah Connor to be born yet?
Citizen-robots and creepy laughter aside, it’s clear that A.I. is very much already part of our “now”. What scientists like the late Stephen Hawking were concerned about weren’t so much A.I.s but ASIs – Artificial Super Intelligences. Unlike A.I.s, or our very own Al, ASIs are seen by some scientists to be possible existential threats to humanity. Via the Guardian:
Professor Stephen Hawking has warned that the creation of powerful artificial intelligence will be “either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity”, and praised the creation of an academic institute dedicated to researching the future of intelligence as “crucial to the future of our civilisation and our species”.
Hawking was speaking at the opening of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence (LCFI) at Cambridge University, a multi-disciplinary institute that will attempt to tackle some of the open-ended questions raised by the rapid pace of development in A.I. research.
“We spend a great deal of time studying history,” Hawking said, “which, let’s face it, is mostly the history of stupidity. So it’s a welcome change that people are studying instead the future of intelligence.”
Threat to humanity, maybe. Will ASIs also be a (competitive) threat to advertising and the creative industry? Existing A.I.s like Google’s DeepMind have been creating works that could be called art. Creepy art, sure, but is branding too far off once you can be tweaked into having an imagination? Is there any last bastion of human work that A.I.s can’t handle?
The robot lawyers are here:
For years, artificial intelligence has been automating tasks—like combing through mountains of legal documents and highlighting keywords—that were once rites of passage for junior attorneys. The bots may soon function as quasi-employees. In the past year, more than 10 major law firms have “hired” Ross, a robotic attorney powered in part by IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence, to perform legal research. Ross is designed to approximate the experience of working with a human lawyer: It can understand questions asked in normal English and provide specific, analytic answers. –The Atlantic
That’s a little depressing, isn’t it? Something similar happened in the creative industry with the rise of computers. Jobs that were usually farmed out to junior designers–such as Letraset work–were no longer necessary thanks to programs. This made it increasingly difficult for younger creatives to break into the industry. Similarly, if more and more legal tasks are farmed out to an A.I., recruitment of junior lawyers is likely to drop further.
Further, A.I.s are now even able to write news articles. Automated journalism has been around since 2006, though in recent years it’s become far more prevalent. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing:
Prakash and Gilbert take pains to stress that the system is not here to usher reporters into obsolescence. And that brings them to the second objective of Heliograf: Make the newsroom more efficient. By removing tasks like incessant poll coverage and real-time election results from reporters’ plates, Heliograf frees them up to focus on the stories that actually require human thought. –WIRED
That might work out the same for the creative industry. As automation and A.I. become more ubiquitous, the positive take that all it’ll do is free people up to focus on work that requires human input. After all, automation like content generation, recommendation engines, the much-maligned programmatic ads and such are all already part of modern life in marketing and advertising, and agencies are still kicking around. However, an ASI will be capable of more. In Altered Carbon, the ASIs have their own businesses: Poe runs a full-service hotel, and another ASI runs various businesses, including a fighting ring. Should ASIs surpass human intelligence, it’s possible that someday the creative industry might also be fully automated.
Future-Facing and Other W**ker Words
Quite a few jobs in modern life didn’t exist 10, 20 years ago. SEM and SEO specialists, for example. As we move into the future, as more labour-intensive work becomes automated, I think that might not just free up people for “human thought” work but generate new jobs altogether, new areas of the creative industry. And even existing ones will still require the human touch on strategy and appropriate application. Algorithms can go wrong: just look at what happened in healthcare: an algorithm began cutting costs on people’s healthcare for no reason in Arkansas. It’s up to agencies to stay ahead of the curve, to use automation and A.I. as part of the tools available to us, and not to allow them to dictate client strategies. As human society evolves and grows more advanced, creative agencies will also have to evolve. As A.I. improves, it’ll help us better use data, and better address client needs on a stickier level. We’re looking forward to it.
But if Siri starts creepy-laughing at us, we’ll see you in the bunker.