Artificial Intelligence: The Age of the Many, of Mediocrity… And the Realisation That Bob Marley Could Still Be Alive

Jasper Distel is the Regional Associate Strategy Director for Carat APAC.

Essentially, I still see advertising as an arty-farty, craft industry, not an automated factory. It’s humans that create and inspire; however, it’s undeniable that technology is here to help us do our jobs ‘better’. But what will that mean in the long run?

8-10 minute read


 

We could all be living in an alternative Matrix-esque reality where Bob Marley is still alive and singing—at least I seriously hope so because today’s music needs a bit of a “Redemption” from its present banality. That random thought is what I woke up with, along with a dry mouth and slight hangover, from the previous night’s beer-fuelled, marathon discussion.

During a recent trip to Korea, I had the pleasure of meeting some really interesting tech peeps. We then decided to continue the evening at a Korean-Mexican restaurant…because that’s what you eat when you’re in Korea. After at least six a couple of drinks, we started deliberating over Artificial Intelligence…as one does during a night out.

For those of you who do not know what Artificial Intelligence is about exactly, don’t worry. It’s just something that will most likely take over your job in the next few years. And it’s HUGE. So huge, it’s true. Believe me. There is a reason they’ve already labelled it as the next industrial revolution. According to ‘specialists,’ AI will have a bigger impact than the previous three revolutions combined. For now, all you need to know is that Artificial Intelligence is H-O-T as hell and will have an impact on everything we do. Impact is not the right word—it will redesign entire industries, from the ground up. I can hear you thinking, “Jasper, stop with that futuristic Terminator mumbo jumbo bullshit”. Fair point; so let’s get back to Bob Marley and his current whereabouts.

 

Our geek-out session had reached a lull and was just on the verge of dying off when—as if on cue—we received a redemption in the form of pop star Hatsune Miku when one of her songs started pumping through the restaurant sound system. Our conversation was immediately revived and took on a new dimension.

After one of my new techy friends told me more about her, I was transfixed by the potential she represents. Never mind that her music is actually pretty shit, Hatsune Miku is possibly the best thing I’ve heard about in a long time. How the hell could I have missed something this big and significant? I felt like Cersei Lannister during her walk of atonement.

For everyone who doesn’t know who Hatsune Miku is (and I truly hope I’m not the only ignorant one) she is a 16-year-old pop star from Sapporo, Japan. Hatsune has impossibly long, turquoise hair held in place by two pigtails and big, bright blue eyes that seem to take up half her face. She started her career in 2007, opened for Lady Gaga and partnered with Pharrell Williams in 2014, and sold out ten major US venues during her 2016 world tour. She has millions of fans around the globe and has already produced over 100,000 songs. Yes—you read that correctly—100,000 songs in only 10 years. That’s an incredibly high rate of productivity. One could say she has a machinelike efficiency…and one wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that.

That’s because she isn’t real. Did I forget to mention that? Well she’s not real in the flesh and blood sense of being ‘real’. She’s actually a piece of code with an avatar and a voice that is completely programmed like a synthetic instrument, processed and smoothed by algorithms. Think Max Headroom for the digital economy…on steroids.

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We know AI can already recognize emotions based on people’s facial expressions and general body language, as well as discern what songs will be popular among an audience. Hatsune, as a non-human, can capitalize on machine learning, adapting as new data comes along, even without being explicitly programmed.

Imagine being at one of her concerts and halfway through the show, she scans the crowd and realizes that they’re not 100% feeling it. On the spot she will be able to change her repertoire, based on machine learning, and get people excited again. Yep, machines toying with your emotions…live.

This is when Hatsune becomes more ‘real’ and brings up philosophical questions about what actually is real. Music has always been about the artist conveying and evoking emotions from an audience. As a Nirvana fan, it’s their raw, somewhat unbridled emotion that stirs the human spirit inside me. I love the emotional rollercoaster; it makes me feel alive. If Hatsune’s music stirs an emotion in her audience and if she can interact with and alter those emotions, then isn’t that real?

Music has always been about the artist conveying and evoking emotions from an audience. If Hatsune’s music stirs an emotion in her audience and if she can interact with and alter those emotions, then isn’t that real?

This is why I was so mesmerised: Could we programme a Bob Marley AI-fuelled avatar and get him to start producing music again? He would compose new and original songs and hold concerts—and he would be real because he would be capable of interacting with audiences and evoking emotions from them.

Call me old school, but something about this thought disappoints me. And it starts a bigger conversation about the impact technology has on different industries, like our own. Essentially, I still see advertising as an arty-farty, craft industry, not an automated factory. It’s humans that create and inspire; however, it’s undeniable that technology is here to help us do our jobs ‘better’.

Many agencies have already been experimenting with facial recognition and deep learning in digital OOH screens. In 2015, Posterscope experimented with a fictional coffee brand in ‘the world’s first ever artificially intelligent poster campaign’. These bus stop ads could read the reactions of its audience and adapt its artwork and ad copy accordingly over time. Actually, not that much time was needed; in less than 72 hours, the campaign was creating posters in line with what’s considered current best practice in the advertising industry—insights that took decades of human trial and error.

In less than 72 hours, the AI-aided campaign was creating posters in line with what’s considered current best practice in the advertising industry—insights that took decades of human trial and error.

In the long run, what effect might this have on the people responsible for ground-breaking, creative work?  Could algorithms and AI produce work of the same calibre as our creative, human geniuses? Will machines be able to deliver stories that amaze us, that make us laugh or cry? Possibly.

In the beginning, AI could provide—en masse—an artificial crutch that enhances the creativity of those who are less inclined. However, a tipping point may come about when we rely too heavily on the aid of algorithms at the expense of human creativity. Remember the pre-Google Maps era, when we still had to rely on paper maps to get from A to B? We had to think on our own and figure out the best route to arrive at where we wanted to be, if we arrived there at all.  Could a creativity-enhancing AI actually make everyone less creative and even more mediocre?

How might this play out over time? In my mind, this conjures up the somewhat strange metaphor of Fat Bastard from Austin Powers. Stay with me here: His head represents truly ground-breaking, innovative work done by a select few creative masters, while his body represents the newly AI-enhanced creative masses. In time, with the aid of AI, his belly will get bigger and bigger, while his head will remain the same, or may even shrink. Got that? Welcome to the age of Mass Mediocrity.

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Hatsune’s cheery pop song eventually ended, and I half expected a newly created Bob Marley tune to follow. It didn’t happen, at least not yet.  We finished our Korean-Mexican food and one of my lovely companions turned to me and said the magic words, “back to the future”.

 

Muchas gracias to Clay Schouest for connecting the dots and with the edits.