Appoint An AI Czar: It's Later Than You Think

Just because the constant acceleration of technology advancement has become cliché doesn’t mean you’re prepared.

You may think that’s OK because everyone is in the same boat, right? Wrong. Some big companies are already way ahead. And the gap between you and the leaders is getting bigger every day. Moor Insights and Strategy analyst Karl Freund put it most succinctly in a Forbes post last week: “While the big social media and internet commerce companies now think of Machine Learning as an essential foundational tool, most enterprises still have no clue where to begin in their quest to get on board and use AI.

If you’re an avid MediaPost reader, here’s a tiny sample of what you should have read last week.

“Personal assistants and intelligent agents” was the most searched marketing term on Bing in 2016, and “artificial intelligence” itself was number four. So it’s on everybody’s mind; expect it to grow faster still. 

From CES in Las Vegas, Marla Skiko talked about marketers’ need to re-understand just what a consumer is -- i.e., person or machine, and how to approach each differently -- in a post where she wrote, “While AI is still in the early stages and can’t yet fully divine intent, technological advances and machine learning that are evolving daily will lead to blurrier lines between human and device.” Keywords: evolving daily.

Here’s what Cindy Gustafson had to say about the evolving power of AI that will understand and respond to customer emotion: “When we talk about machine learning and automation, usually the conversation revolves around function. … But it’s important to consider the emotional perspective as well. … Synced up to your calendar, your device knows that you’ve got a wedding to attend in two weeks. You may not need a new dress, but it’d make you happy to buy one. And if there’s a special sale or promo happening at a nearby clothing shop or department store, how perfect would that be if your device suggested it?” Echoes of Frederik Pohl’s “Einstein” and “Sigfrid von Shrink” from my “Chatbots Rising” post.

And then there was the announcement of Mattel’s Aristotle, a kind of Amazon Echo for kids and their parents, powered by Microsoft’s Cortana technology.

If you think this is happening faster than you expected, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. There are two core reasons for this. First, new technology often stands on the shoulders of existing tech, and in this case much of the infrastructure necessary to exploit AI and machine learning is the same mobile-social-cloud and big-data stuff that was built over the last two decades. So there’s no waiting for an infrastructure build-out, as was the case in the early days of e-commerce (which, don’t forget, emerged during the dial-up era).

Second is that the big guns behind all that mobile-social-cloud and big-data technology -- Amazon, Apple, Google, IBM, Facebook, Microsoft (now new-and-improved with LinkedIn!) -- have been engaged in an AI arms race for way longer than they let on. What they’re offering now are platforms anyone can use to lever themselves into the AI game, and many are doing exactly that -- from Mattel to Ford.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, “AI is like oxygen” for LinkedIn, whose vice president of engineering and “head of AI and relevance,” Deepak Agarwal, says, “We use machine learning for almost all our products.” He says when they recently revamped job-matching algorithms with machine learning, performance rose 50%.

So, uh, what have you done in AI lately?

If you’re an agency of any size or a marketer in anything bigger than a small business, it’s a little way past time to get very serious about AI. To catch up, appoint an AI czar who, as Freund writes in the Forbes post cited above, “is accountable for identifying and realizing the low-hanging fruit where AI can quickly provide a high ROI.”

Yes, you’ll make mistakes. Some will be embarrassing. Accept those mistakes as the price of survival, because as 2017 opens AI and machine learning have emerged as existential issues not only for marketers but for the clients and businesses they serve.

And remember F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” In other words, accepting that you’ll make mistakes does not mean that you ever cease striving for the perfectly delightful experiences customers really want, and demand.

For my final exhortation to act on this AI czar idea, let’s turn to the oft-quoted couplet attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it; Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."

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