I visited the ‘Age of Amazement’ TED conference in Vancouver earlier this year, which sees influential thinkers and investors gather to speculate on the future and share thoughts on things that seem right at the edge of current possibility.
Speakers included Kai-Fu Lee, president of Google in China until 2009 and now a venture capitalist. Lee predicted half of all jobs worldwide will be “lost to AI” in the next decade. But he didn’t paint this as a jobs crisis. Instead he views it as a way to secure a better future where people enjoy rewarding jobs rather than dull and routine work – the kind of production line employment that could literally be done better by robots. It’s a notional direction that Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist agrees with. Fifteen million British jobs might be taken over by machines, he gloomily predicted.
Why should we believe them?
China is arguably the world’s leader in AI, because it’s a place where data-enabled technology is the norm for many. Mobile payments have grown at a faster rate than GDP. It’s the primary way people buy and sell, at a peer-to-peer level and at street markets where phones are used instead of cash. This permeation of mobile payment allows for rich sales data allowing for a level of understanding of consumer behaviour previously unknown.
Lee also set up MSR, a revered Asian research lab for Microsoft. This experience in the world’s most data-enabled, AI-led nation is what gives him the insight into when some jobs will transition from human to robot.
Getting rid of the dull and routine
Computer versus human occupational mapping – planning out the shift of jobs that can move from people to machines – can also be applied to broad sales and marketing functions. And it’s doing this that should make us certain that machine learning doesn’t represent a jobs crisis: it’s an opportunity we can all look ahead to.
In the coming years, the most dull and routine elements of our jobs can be delegated to technology as it becomes more accessible, freeing us to work on the interesting and important tasks. According to Creative Skillset there are 153,000 of us working in the marketing and advertising industries, which means that our teams might be spending three million weeks a year on tasks that will ultimately be automated. Tasks like media mix modelling, data analytics, and technical support can be delegated to machines over time until we are liberated to work on what is uniquely meaningful to us.
Product development and strategy managers will benefit from automated and bespoke trend analysis that lands in inboxes without having to commission a study. It is said you will only get the right answers if you ask the right questions. Predictive analysis will help us ask the right questions to anticipate consumer trends.
AI won’t just aid us with product, it’ll also help us with place. The complexity of distribution will be streamlined as automated GPS plots the routes for equally automated vehicles.
And in promotion and media, we can look forward to truly intelligent cross-channel media optimisation supported by algorithmic learning that will help us make better decisions in a market that changes second by second.
We will even see robots introduced to archetypally human arenas such as celebrity endorsement, with the first wave of machine-made “influencers” already here. Not everyone in marketing would agree but the brand-savvy Instagram avatar @lilmiquela, with its 1.2 million followers, is really quite interesting.
A new career awaits
The creator of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee says that “many humans are placeholders, doing work just until the robots are ready to take over for us”. So how do marketers transition from human “placeholder” to meaningful and fulfilled contributor?
The answer is to embrace new roles that play to our uniquely human strengths. The things only people can do. The jobs that require true creativity and leaps of anthropological idiosyncrasy. We need to take the jobs that make real human connections. The jobs that inspire.
With time freed to deep learning and automation, we can focus on new, more liberating careers. Jobs will open up in learning, and ‘marketing educator’ roles will fragment and flourish. New jobs will be created for training colleagues and developing more specialist critical thinking and creative skills. Artistic roles in creative, design and photography can proliferate. Planners and strategists can imagine new futures and connect with groups of consumers using more specific emotions, in more places and at more life-moments.
Most excitingly, there’ll be a new caring economy – a move to measure our performance based not just on efficiency and ROI, but also on the more humane benchmarks of employee fulfilment, societal contribution and consumer contentment. The biggest shift of all will be towards vocations dependent on the relationships most fundamental to business. Customer and shareholder relations, talent development, and community management will thrive.
Machines can never replace insight
Because while computers can already do a great job on a complex programmatic buy, they still struggle with the simplest social attributes that we people learn in infancy.
AI doesn’t understand, for example, that people tend to move by walking, or that a flag often means “look over here”, or that the most interesting bit of a person to look at in a conversation is their face.
Kevin Frans, an 18-year-old student and the youngest TED talker this year, demonstrated how he is working on improving the most basic social knowledge of AI, so that it can begin to recognise the things people instinctively do, rather than having to learn these fundamental lessons over and over. But this work is in early days, and for the foreseeable future, it’s best to keep the roles that optimise and the roles with real human implications separate.
That’s why jobs that require empathy and strong emotional intelligence, like CEO, marketing director and investor relations, need to remain the preserve of people.
This is not a ubiquitous view. Some AI experts argue that the ethical benefit of robots governing organisations in senior roles including CEO are that machines make smart decisions, are always fair, and can’t be bribed. In fact, Max Tegmark, MIT professor and author of ‘Life 3.0’ berated TED attendees who think you can only be intelligent “if you’re made of meat”, pointing to the ethical Asimolar principles that would guard us from harm if robots were permitted to run corporations and governments. Or, say, media-buying agencies.
It’s a future that may feel more like a George Orwell novel than reality, but while superintelligence’s capability is being hothoused for a potential moment of singularity, we can get busy writing the to-do list for the robots who can take away tasks at the duller end of the spectrum, like auditing, data management and optimisation.
This time saved, the billions of hours every year, is time that can be better spent elsewhere. For the robots are unable to do some things that humans have evolved over millennia: the capabilities to dream, to create and to care.
Zoe Clapp is chief marketing and communications officer at UKTV