A few weeks ago, researchers at Harvard University, announced the results of an incredible project that enables computers to understand human thought, albeit at a very rudimentary level (the computer was able to understand a single word when the human thought of it). Minutes after the announcement, the world of social was filled with the dystopian visions of digital mind-control and telepathy and before you knew it we were locked back into a conversation that is essentially about the battle for power between humans and machines and how should be wary of our new digital overlords.
Of course, I don’t think the future will play out in anything like the sorts of scenarios that we see in the movies but I am continually bemused as to why we, as a society, so often see this as a conflict. Why is it always about humans vs machines when surely the whole point of what we have been doing for the last decade (although I would argue we’ve been doing it for much longer) is about the incredible opportunity that lies in front of us when instead we think about the potential of humans plus machines? A place where the technology does not replace us, but instead lifts us, it augments our capabilities to help us achieve more or deliver more engaging experiences that amaze and enchant our audiences.
This conversation is becoming more and more relevant in our industry, a world that is increasingly based on the cold, unemotional light of insights from data being harnessed by the growing power of algorithms. This is a world where, when fed with enough data, the algorithms will know what content will go “viral”, when and where it should be placed and for how long. Humans will therefore no longer be required and we can sit back on our ample backsides and bask in the glory of all that we have created. It’s usually at this point, someone hits the big red button labelled “panic” and we all start worrying about our jobs because after all, the computers can do all this stuff better than us can’t they?
At a high level at least, we can help to ease some of the anxiety for our future employment prospects by taking a little time to understand the limitations of algorithms:
- Algorithms can only make predictions (e.g. “this must be spam”, “this ad should be placed here”) based on experiences drawn from a huge trove of “training” data.
- They can only learn from that data by processing it within a model that has been given to them; they can’t learn from data alone.
- As the volume of data expands, the machines learn from the results of previous predictions and fine-tune the model. This iterative self-improvement is one of the most powerful features of machine learning and but it basically means they can improve on the results of the model, but they can’t improve the model itself.
- The machines draw conclusions and develop solutions based on probability; they are not human, as such they have no emotion or biases to augment their perspective.
I know that’s a lot to take in, but if you think of it like this – the algorithms are only as good as the data they get fed (garbage in…) and they are constrained by the rules that they’ve been provided with, they cannot yet improve the models, or connect multiple models together independently. Doesn’t this sound a lot like the age old conversation about “tools” and how they’re only as good as the people that use them? It should, because it’s no different.
So, before the digital industry rises up and forms their own Luddite rebellion (how ironic would that be?) we’ve just got to remember that by getting the machines to do more work, more of the heavy lifting, we should be pushing ourselves to make better use of that platform to extend ourselves further.
It’s no different to the debate we had when I was a kid at school, at a time when pocket calculators were first becoming affordable. I did the majority of my maths exams armed with no more than a slide rule and a log book (and I did OK thanks very much) but let me tell you, I am a better mathematician with a calculator than I am with a book of tabulated paper and slidy bit of plastic. Yes, I need to know the basic principles of arithmetic but I can get the machine to take care of the heavy lifting. We no longer have that debate and our culture and curriculums have adapted to integrate the power of the calculator to lift human beings to be able to do more and more complex calculations. Our relationship with technology, data and algorithms and their potential in our industry should be no different.
We need to remember that computers, algorithms and the data that feeds them are here to help. The success of our industry’s future (not to mention the future of awe inspiring campaigns and engagement) will depend entirely on our ability to grasp the potential they offer us. As a result, our aspiration should be to do things differently, not the same things slightly better.
If we get this right, we humans won’t have to be in awe of the machines; instead, we will stand high and proud on the shoulders of these mechanical giants and accomplish truly amazing things. The time for us to make this happen is now. The rise of the humans has already started – and the world will never be the same again.
An edited version of this article was published by The Drum.