At CES, experts weigh in on the promise — and the hype — of AI

By January 9, 2019Advertising

One of the main topics of conversation this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is artificial intelligence — what it means for consumers and how marketers should prepare. Ad Age spoke with two experts in the field to get their takes.

Allan Cook, the digital reality business leader at Deloitte Digital

One of the upsides to attending CES every year is that one becomes adept at separating hype from reality. What was yesterday’s bright and shiny promise may have fizzled by the time the next January rolls around.

Not so with artificial intelligence. This year more than ever, conference attendees are able to chart AI’s progress in the marketplace.

“The big changes this year versus last year is the humanization of AI and how completely ubiquitous it has become into our lives,” says Allan Cook, the digital reality business leader at Deloitte Digital. “If you look at voice enabled devices you see that you use it all the time. Last year it was a new toy. My family, we got them for the first time. Now everyone is ordering everything from their favorite device.”

Cook is in town to speak at a pair of “smart future” presentations at CES, including one on trends reshaping the future of mobility and connectivity. AI, especially as an engine that fuels voice technology and augmented reality, is a point of fascination for him.

Which presents a few challenges to marketers.

“One of the massive online retailers is getting closer to shipping nearly 50 percent of all goods a this point,” he says (declining to specifically call out the large Seattle-based online retailer whose name rhymes with Shmamazon). The big challenge for marketers, then, is how does one stand out in a crowded field? “How do I make myself differentiated in that type of marketplace?”

One way Cook sees brands successfully using AI is to inform the augmented and virtual reality services they offer. With AR, a home improvement center, for example, can accurately convey how a potential purchase might look in your living room. “I can see what the furniture would actually look like,” he says.

The upside for brands, he says, is that the costs they incur on returns has come down. “Whilst it’s not dramatically helping them to sell more,” he says, “the costs of returns are going down hugely. So the cost of selling is going down a massive amount.”

Still, AI comes with no shortage of worries for the average consumer — not least of which involve privacy and the dreaded specter of robots taking our jobs.

“One of the things which people are fearful of with AI or believe — that isn’t true — is that AI is a job killer,” says Cook. “The reality is that yes it’s going to end some jobs, but it’s creating a whole new field of new jobs. It’s that classic adapt or die: If you’re not going to be with the program, you’re going to be run over by it.”

Deirdre McGlashan, global chief digital officer at MediaCom

It is, of course, worth noting that artificial intelligence is only as good as the engineers who created it.

“Everyone is worried about the robot army coming and creating a doomsday scenario. But I think the real risks are [in not] understanding, when you’re using products with AI in it, what was the data that was being fed?” says Deirdre McGlashan, global chief digital officer at MediaCom.

“How supervised was the learning? How broad and deep was that data set that it initially started with it, and the data set it now has access to? Without the correct depth and breadth, you have the risk of creating unconscious bias in these new machines and that can be very dangerous for us.”

Still, McGlashan is no Chicken Little when it comes to AI. She couldn’t be if she tried: it’s already permeated everything.

“We keep thinking it’s this thing that’s just around the corner. But it’s already infiltrated our lives,” she says. “It’s in a lot of the parts of the infrastructure that we use that we don’t even know about,” from recommendation engines at online retailers to air traffic that guides our planes.

And yet, despite its ubiquity, uncertainty hovers around AI — how to tell if it’s “real” and what differentiates it from, say, a simple algorithm. (Artificial intelligence systems are often built out of a series of complex algorithms, which are themselves sets of instructions for a computer to follow.)

“Sometimes it’s really hard to tell the difference between a good algo and AI,” says McGlashan.

Marketers shopping for any given solution would do well to learn the difference, though only to a point. “Does it do what you want it to do? And are you being charged a price premium for the word AI?’,” she asks. “Because if you are, then you do have to make sure it’s AI. But if it does what you need and you’re not being charged a price premium, then use it.”

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