Loving The Alien: Why AI Will Be The Key To Unlocking Consumer Affection

14th May 2018

Originally Published in Forbes.

The consumer relationship with artificial intelligence (AI) has had its rough patches. But initial terror at the specter of job-gobbling automation and affront at the insurgence of ‘inhuman’ interactions is waning as the promise of support, entertainment, connectivity and even protection emerges – presenting retailers who dare to deal in the un-real with major opportunities.

The sentiment was starkly illustrated when Italian fashion giant Prada promoted its Autumn/Winter 2018 catwalk show in league with ‘Instagram’s first virtual influencer’, superseding the fashion industry’s vast pool of human bloggers, many of whom now represent retail’s heftiest marketing spends. Lil Miquela, who may or may not be based on an LA-based blogger, is a bone fide CGI superstar; as of May 2018, she has a whopping 1.1M Instagram followers, a figure that’s rocketed from an already robust 600k during the February show. She teased followers with videos, GIFs of the new collection and archival pieces, Instagram stories (micro videos) and even a tour of the venue via a drone that she controlled before the show kicked off. Whether she’ll reprise the ambassadorship in September remains to be seen. The appetite for avatars is booming elsewhere in pop culture; Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s virtual band Gorillaz was created twenty years ago but finally won its first Brit award (for Best British Group) in February 2018 after a decade of nominations. US audio retailer Sonos had already sensed the mood, launching a pop-up space in NYC in 2017 dubbed Spirit House (transplanted to Berlin and Amsterdam this year) that saw fans literally queuing around the block to witness 180˚ projection-mapped animations of its characters.

Beyond the visual sweeteners of avatar laden ‘entertainment’ consumers are warming to AI in more domestic and municipal scenarios that will impact any retail with a service element.

A late 2017 study covering the US, UK & Germany called Sex, Lies and AI conducted by with WPP agency SYZYGY & British psychologist Paul Marsden finds that 35% of people support predictive policing (the right of police to apprehend people based on AI recommendation alone) while 34% (47% men, 20% women) would like to have sex with an AI-powered sex robot. In China, Xiaoice – an advanced, Microsoft -created chatbot based onmicro blogging platform Weibo that converses with users as a surrogate friend – has become so popular that 89m users so far have professed love to it. Marsden suggests, “that many consumers are actually highly responsive to the anonymity. The non-judgemental nature of bots often makes users more honest, which in turn gives brands far richer data than conventional exchanges.” The sentiment is echoed by Pete Trainor, AI expert and founder of UK-based consultancy US Ai whose states that many people actually prefer ‘pure bots’ to mixtures of humans and machine learning, because the AI presents a deeper and more reliable confidante than fallible, fickle human counterparts – a factor brands must observe. “Humans are famously inconsistent in their behaviour, but an AI agent can’t be. Unexpected or volatile responses and behaviours degrade the user’s trust that the agent will behave appropriately in certain settings,” warns Trainor.

Once that sense of consistency is established, the doors to accessing and our ‘unique’ emotional responses will be opened in full. Bots that read human emotions are already being deployed to respond to consumers on a more individualized level. American department store Macy’s ‘On-Call’ service app has users converse with a bot but then switches to a human agent if it senses the chat is becoming strained, the consumer tetchy. More sophisticated, Chinese group Emotibot’s software enables bots, digital PA’s such as Amazon’s Alexa and live chat tools to ‘read’ users’ emotions via combinations of facial recognition technology, audio and visual signs detected by devices’ cameras or movement sensors, switching up the language used or even what’s offered in terms of discounts or services accordingly.  The move spotlights how the designing digitally must change for a world of conversational commerce. “As visual design is demoted in favour of words, what you say and how you say it become more crucial than ever. When the conversation is the interface, suddenly the job is all about crafting the right words,” says Trainor.

The advent of hearables in scenarios where retailers can deliver services, advice and even pep talks to their fans will compound that sense of a relationship, or ‘companion commerce’. German brand Bragi was the first, in 2017, to make wireless headphones that incorporate Alexa, which currently allows users to order a Starbucks SBUX +0.41% coffee or an Uberbut there are multiple applications that also touch on physical spaces. For instance, personal shopping: the Ai assistant would know the entire inventory of the store you’re in and suggest items that compliment what’s already in your closet/syncs to your taste. Alternatively, a bot that’s liaising with you about your health and wellness (via direct conversations but also monitoring what’s actually happening to your body) could advise what to buy when you’re in the supermarket. We won’t simply abide such companionship, we’ll crave it. “People’s relationships with technology will only deepen as we move to ‘all talk and no buttons’… this concept of machines being able to converse with us, is, in a lot of ways the final barrier to ubiquitous human computer interface. We won’t have to think, we’ll just behave as naturally as we do with each other. That basic human need to form relationships,” says Trainor.

What’s key in narrowing the real/unreal gap,say both Marsden and Trainor, is not to mistake such access as an invite to dupe humans by emulating them too closely – hence the near-immediate call this month for Google GOOGL +1.28% Duplex – the newly announced Ai assistant that simulates human idiosyncrasies such as erms and hmms when making calls – to fess up about its robot status. Ethically there is much to debate. As Marsden comments, “climate change, harassment and AI were the hottest topics at the 2018 Davos World Economic Forum,” particularly as emulation itself is a highly grey area. Trainor, for instance, is already working on the possibility of ‘codifying personalities’, where an individual’s personality traits are replicated by a bot; U.S. technology firm Replika is building bots that could ‘absorb’ the personalities of popular store assistants; and American company Oben is crafting AI-driven avatars that learn to emulate people. Both could potentially enable consumers to connect with unavailable retail associates in virtual or real environments, including allowing people to rent themselves out, ‘licensing their own personalities’ when they need to be in two places at once. While not yet commercialized Danish fashion designer and technology pioneer Martine Jarlgaard has launched Meet Yourself, an art installation currently showing at the Katapult Future Fest in Oslo, in which visitors come face to face with a life-size avatar of themselves. As we head toward the ultra-natural era, it’s no longer about man vs. machine or even how man uses machine but a far blurrier space of convergence, primed for the ‘optimize-me’self-obsessed age. As Trainor says, “Consider the analogy of the ‘grolar bear’ – a hybrid polar & grizzly bear, born from necessity as the polar bears walk south to escape environmental changes. It’s a product of climate change. So are we, as we merge with technology”.

Tags: Ai, bot, chat, humans,