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#HumanVsBot Part One: March of the Bots

We’ve historically had a bit of a love hate relationship with robots and AI: Terminator (petrifying – when you’re eight), WALL-E (adorable), Channel 4’s Humans (whose side are they on anyway?), the movie Her (petrifying – and how can Scarlett Johansson be so smoulderingly gorgeous even when you can’t see her?).

Are we afraid of them or should we love them?

Stephen Hawking recently warned that the development of full artificial intelligence systems could spell doom for the human race. Experts across the fields of agriculture, manufacturing, medicine and education are predicting a future where blue and white collar workers could become obsolete. Will this mean a life of carefree leisure for us mortals, catered for by robot slaves, or should we be contemplating more of a Terminator scenario?

Ultimately are machines/AI/robots and their kind out to help us and serve us, or to undermine us, taking our jobs and ultimately crushing us in their bloodless arms?

Having stockpiled a few tins of baked beans to cover all eventualities, I feel like I can spare a moment to contemplate the implications that the bot genus might have for brands.

Certainly brands can use smart tech to serve us in our lazy human ways. Domino’s gets this and allows us to order pizza just by launching an app, or tweeting a pizza emoji. What’s not to like? At Red Bee we created the super charming and helpful ‘hub buddy’ to show guests around the new gizmo packed rooms in Premier Inn ‘hub’ hotels. Surely buddy wouldn’t crush a fly? He’s out to help, although you could argue he has taken someone’s job.

Equally handy, and to counteract the pizza AI, is online personal training, which has gone mainstream – kitted out with video conferencing and wearable tech. It’s effective, cost effective and convenient. You can ‘access your training program anywhere’. But would you miss being beasted by an actual human? I’m not sure my press ups would be quite as committed if my torturer wasn’t in the room.

Soon however we won’t even need to talk to humans online, as cheap, efficient, but currently naïve chatbots look be serious game changers. Earlier this year Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella suggested chatbots will have “as profound an impact as previous shifts we’ve had”. Similar to those provoked by the introduction of the web browser or touchscreen for example.

For now things seem a little less revolutionary. A chatbot from H&M can learn your style and recommend outfits which you can buy through H&M’s website. The Weather Channel bot can give you forecasts for your location for example, but only responds to quite prescriptive inputs. If you simply ask ‘How hot is it?’ – it melts. Guardian journalists have been affronted by its ‘passive aggressive’ tone, which is frankly not what you’d expect from a weather bot, even on a slow news day.

Putting shades of meaning to one side, tech can of course play an amazing role in our human relations, enabling us to Skype Granny in with the grandchildren and use Facebook to keep in touch with friends all over the world. So much so that we have on average 155 Facebook friends. But the truth is that only a fraction of those are genuine friends and we’d turn to just four in a crisis.

While I appreciate Facebook and its like are an interface rather than a ‘robot’ per se, they have come to fulfil a rather humanoid role in our lives. Many of us love being with her (Facebook. Or should ‘she’ be male in honour of her founder?) and quite a few can’t be without her. She impacts on our self worth and ‘real’ human relationships. Research at the University of Montreal found that young people with over 300 Facebook friends have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their system which can be a predictor of depression later in adolescence.

Jealousy of a partner’s smartphone is a common and well documented phenomenon. People who are more dependent on their smartphones, or whose partners are overly dependent on their devices, are less confident and happy in their relationships.

Is it when technology tries to take an emotional place in our lives that things can start to go awry?

Microsoft had their own well documented and cortisol raising run in with AI when they created their chatbot ‘Tay’. Tay had been designed to respond to users’ queries on Twitter with the casual, jokey speech patterns ascribed to a stereotypical millennial. It was trying to go beyond being simply useful and act like a mate.

But millennial humans don’t necessarily want a Microsoft chatbot mate, so they took matters into their own hands and messed with the robot’s head and algorithm, teaching it to say all manner of racist and inappropriate things. Within hours of launching, the ‘teen girl’ AI had turned into a Hitler-loving dope-smoking sex machine, forcing Microsoft to embark on some major social surgery, and eventually kill their own bot.

Whether we’re talking to genocidal bots or ordering pizza, we do tend towards the path of least resistance and this is often tech enabled. It’s so much easier to bank through your phone for example than trek to a branch to see a human who might be having an off day. This attitude saw the use of bank branches fall by 6% last year as customers channeled more transactions over phone networks and the internet. We’re creating this world. We’re voting with our feet (or thumbs).

Humans are irrational, chaotic and sometimes hung over. Robots are ordered and rule following, which is surely what you look for in help with your financial affairs. But, according to a Which? survey, in-branch customer service was still ranked better than internet customer service for all major banks apart from Barclays and First Direct. We still want that human interaction.

Of course we’ll continue to take the lazy option though. The truth is most of us are spending more time on screens than we do sleeping, which is at the same time shocking and unsurprising. Human interaction is reducing and this clearly poses a problem for brands. But people still want and NEED human relationships to love (brands).

Therefore brands need to get closer to their audience in new ways and the interface is a screen. The challenge is to create a digital experience or relationship that can feel as emotional as the original human experience.

What might this mean for brand communication? How can brands be human in this hyper connected multiscreen world?



#HumanVsBot Part Two: Underpant Shame vs the Human Touch

Humans are irrational, chaotic and sometimes hung over.
Robots are ordered, rule following.

Most of us are spending more time on screens than we do sleeping.
Real human interaction between each other, let alone with brands, is reducing. But while our habits have changed our hearts haven’t. We still want and NEED human relationships to love (brands).

What does all this mean for brand communication?

A ‘robot’ might (for example) serve my boss underwear ads while I was working with him at his desk. While that would be highly embarrassing for all concerned, I don’t remember the brand, and as far as I know he is yet to buy the pants.

But I might be more inclined to remember something a little less expected and a little more disruptive that is full of human insight and humour. Like this from the Aussie pants brand Bonds. You’ll have to see for yourself.

It’s the difference between programmatically targeting a consumer and really understanding and communicating with an audience. At Red Bee we are passionate about audiences, which are made up of humans, but we do love technology and what it enables us to do too. The point is that when we embrace any technology we can’t forget who we are and what makes us feel. When connecting with humans through a screen (in this multiscreen world) we consider three important things: human insight, human interaction, and human stories.

1. Human Insight
We need to understand the people we’re talking with and what makes them tick, or laugh, remember and share: like Bonds did.

We have recently been working with Nissan to raise awareness of their sponsorship of Team GB and ParalympicsGB. Our first challenge was to understand what connected the Nissan audience with the Olympics and Team GB/ ParalympicsGB. Early research revealed something interesting about the Nissan audience. They don’t just enjoy watching sport like most of the British population: they actually want to take part in it… they want to feel like part of the British team.

Rather than rocking up and badging t-shirts and content at the finish line in August, we wanted to support the team for the whole journey, which played well to our audience’s supportive sensibilities. This meant connecting with them at a time when the majority of people were not yet paying any attention to the Olympics – from January to May.

There’s plenty of support for the athletes around the time of the Games, but there is a lot less on those dark, lonely winter morning training runs. It is during those hard yards when the medals are actually won. So we asked the audience to get involved to support the athletes when they needed it the most, on a miserable winter morning at 7am. The world record holding (and charming) Paralympian, Richard Whitehead, invited people to join a live training session, through a launch video on Facebook, designed to stand out in people’s newsfeeds.

2. Human interaction
Our second tip for being human in this multiscreen world is human interaction.

First a quick pop quiz.
Q. Do you know who ‘won’ the sports sponsorship rankings last year?
A.  …………

Was it Google with a snarky, all knowing McEnroe chat bot tennis guru?
Was it Carlsberg with probably the world’s first 3D Serena Williams hologram?

Actually neither, especially as I made them up.
No, it was homely Robinsons with some good old human community management, responding personally to almost every single tweet during Wimbledon. The antithesis to thoughtlessly spammy or racist chat bots.

Yes a lot of the interaction brands have to play with today happens through a screen, but it can still be very human. It can be delivered editorially, or more literally as we did for Nissan, where our live training sessions facilitated very intimate, while also mass, human interaction.

At 7am on that dark and cold February morning we hosted three live-streamed training sessions on Facebook with the gymnast Max Whitlock, Richard Whitehead the Paralympic runner and the rower Kat Copeland. People could work out with their sporting heroes live for an hour. And they joined in in their thousands: from running pensioners in Cumbria to young Olympic gymnastic hopefuls at their club in Glasgow or in their bedroom at home.

Participants were invited to join in, tweet and share videos of themselves and their friends taking part, and the athletes responded to them personally, which sent some of the young fans loopy.

This was using technology to connect people, not to be people.

3. Human stories
It doesn’t need me to say we have loved human stories since the dawn of time. Human triumph over adversity is always a favourite. It’s that storyline that saw journalists give the 9-dan ‘Go’ grandmaster (human) Lee Sedol a standing ovation when he came back to briefly defeat the AlphaGo robot in the fourth round of their intense man vs machine contest a couple of months ago.

For Nissan, our live training event enabled the fans to get closer to the athletes as our insight told us they wanted to, and to interact with them for sure. But it also allowed us to tell some powerful human stories about the participants and their human relationships with the Olympic and Paralympic athletes – through a screen, hundreds of miles away.

So there you have it. Our three-point plan to being human in our hyper connected multiscreen world:

Human insight. Because we respond best to content that truly understands us.
Human interaction. Because bots can’t match our chaotic, disruptive and irrational, but totally loveable, way of doing things.
Human stories. Because these are what have shaped our society since the dawn of time, and what will help us survive whatever is to come too.

And one last note to ourselves. By all means order your pizza by tweeting an emoji and replenish your wardrobe using the H&M fashion AI from the comfort of your armchair. But don’t be too lazy. The bots will be learning and training even while you’re sleeping. By the next Olympics we might not so much be watching rowing, Paralympic running, or gymnastics, but esports. And the playing field will have shifted once again. Could we see a bot on the podium in Tokyo 2020? Escorted there by a driverless car?

When it comes to communication though, fleshy and lazy as we are, I do feel we can still have the last laugh. Robots obey commands while we can think and feel and have ideas for ourselves. Robots don’t have emotions while we can love and hate and everything in between. Robots need oil and the odd battery charge to survive. We need food and water, but as social creatures we also need to communicate with other humans for our survival. Empathy, creativity and communication are still what make us human even in the multiscreen world, and what will continue to set us apart.

About the Author

Kath Hipwell, leads the strategic element of Red Bee’s content offering, helping brands to define editorial strategies that are fit for today’s multiscreen world. Rather than pushing out a brand’s ‘message’, she is interested in creating entertaining and relevant content that puts audiences’ interests first, and takes into account how they might look and feel quite different by platform or screen. Kath has worked on editorial and creative strategy for brands including Hyundai, Ericsson, Halfords and across the BBC portfolio.
Kath is a keen writer and is regularly published in the marketing trade press.