Artificial intelligence is getting smarter, more user-friendly and able to act on the consumer’s behalf. But, says Nick Chiarelli of Unlimited Group, brands using AI have to deliver real value and ensure people trust them with personal data.

Slowly – or perhaps not so slowly – artificial intelligence is entering more and more elements of our lives. A few years ago, you may have encountered some scepticism or looks of bewilderment if you littered your conversation with talk of ‘AI’, robotics or automation, but in marketing circles interest in artificial intelligence seems to be having a bit of a moment.

Missteps are inevitable, of course, but speech recognition and natural language processing, to name just two drivers of AI, are undergoing such a significant step change in quality that a fundamental shift is imminent, with bots set to offer increasingly natural and contextually relevant conversation, and advice.

Certainly this year, the most obvious step change in technology looks to be the increasing sophistication and the resulting consumer-friendly nature of AI. Digital assistants are becoming more human, more empathetic and more empowered to act on our behalf, in everything from auto-replenishment of commodities, to arranging our lives, to seamlessly renegotiating or transferring our utilities contracts.

Take just three examples of energy auto-switching services: ‘Look After My Bills’; ‘Flipper’ (“We Flip energy automatically and switch you to the cheapest gas and electric deals, forever. Never overpay again.”); and Labrador ( “We know it’s a hassle to switch energy supplier. Not with us. We do it all for you. No bills. No meter reads. No worries”), whose pitch is that of a trusted partner, rather like a four-legged friend – except it’s a robot.

What appeals to consumers about such services is that they can save money without a huge ongoing investment of time. And, since energy is so commoditised and is such a low-interest sector, there is relatively little brand loyalty to act as a barrier. But such services are set to proliferate in a variety of other sectors, too. Ever been bamboozled by a (human) call handler – intentionally or not – when trying to navigate your phone package options, anyone?

Even our finances are being handed to the robots. Wealthsimple, for example, is a robotic, AI investment tool or ‘advisor’ aimed at wealthy young people.

All of the above, however, rests on the assumption that consumers can be persuaded to share the personal data required to drive such powerful, diagnostic tools. When Manchester-based OOH adtech company Bidooh announced that it would deploy thousands of ad boards encompassing facial recognition, it was met with accusations of ‘Minority Report’-style creepiness. It ads can scan age and gender and even facial hair, but it claims its processes are all GDPR compliant.

The fact is, brands delivering AI services and applications which add real value will gain a huge benefit in being trusted with consumer data, making the knock-on benefits of investing in AI potentially huge.

If a number of brands get it right, consumer attitudes towards data sharing could undergo a significant shift. It would be a good idea to take a life out of ASOS’s book, for instance, with its stand out example of effective re-permissioning emails, pre- and post GDPR. These included clear and simple language, emphasising that the customer is in control and pointing out the benefits of sharing data – and which services may be lost if you chose not to.

Privacy and security aside, there has also been some pushback towards AI – thus far – given the fear that it will see robots taking over our jobs, rendering humans redundant. Ongoing carnage on the high street isn’t helping but new jobs will emerge – ‘data stewards’, for instance, helping us to navigate what we do and don’t share in order to obtain services or other ‘rewards’ from brands. The high street has always been evolving and technology just makes the pace of change that bit faster.

In the worlds of health and wellness, too, we are starting to see medical grade sensors in wearables. It won’t be long before everyday technology can predict medical episodes or illnesses before they happen: AI can save lives.

Ultimately, AI is about taking data to develop solutions and personalisation, within a specific context, helping us to make better decisions, more quickly. And whilst the likes of AI-powered recommendation engines are something of a blunt tool right now, they will start to evolve well beyond purchasing patterns.

This is why Google is putting a tonne of effort into context-based AI. Last summer, the tech giant showed off its new Duplex system, which brings humanity one step closer to having useful conversations with robots: Google’s virtual assistant successfully called a hair salon to book an appointment. This debuted at Google’s I/O conference in May and we can bet that by the time the next conference rolls round, something even more impressive will be unveiled. The fact is, if robots do the job better or make your life easier, that’s all that will matter.

We’ll see brands sharing data sets, integrating data streams to surprise and delight consumers with increasingly joined up, personalised and ‘intuitive’ experiences. When you arrive at a hotel, for instance, you may find the minibar stocked with products tailored to your lifestyle and preferences.

The combination of data and analytics or algorithms in order to drive focused and empathetic solutions will empower entirely new consumer experiences. Brands need to embrace it because, increasingly, we are trusting it with our lives.