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The Coming Robot Apocalypse: Disruption and Opportunity in an AI-Powered Future

Jason Finkelstein

CMO @ AdRoll

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When The Terminator debuted in 1984, it presented the world with a very tactile and very simple vision for the coming battle between humanity and the machines. For those not well-versed in ‘80s sci-fi thrillers, the film series focuses on military AI that gains self-awareness and sets out to exterminate humanity using all sorts of robots, cyborgs, and automated drones.

Here in 2019, 22 years after Skynet gained self-awareness in the fictional universe, humanity seems to be on the verge of a very different kind of battle for survival against unstoppable machines. Instead of dodging Schwarzenegger-esque robots with glowing red eyes, ours is a war for the things we do and the way we do them. The coming AI apocalypse isn’t one of drones and drama. Instead, it radically disrupts traditional notions of work and employment, and in doing so opens up opportunities to take on the biggest brands on a more level field.

The Rise of the Machines

Job automation — human work being taken over by machines — has been a goal of industry since the beginning of industry itself. In the 1700s and 1800s, inventions like the cotton gin and water-powered looms radically changed the way people worked. Jobs that were once labor-intensive and took scores of people hours to complete could now be done by a handful of machine operators in minutes. Economies changed, populations were unsettled and resettled, and the very fabric of society was irreversibly altered.

Two centuries later, the march of progress continued unabated. The mid to late 20th century brought computers and robotics, allowing for the automation of complex tasks. Factories that had recently drawn hundreds of thousands to manufacturing cities suddenly found themselves with an overabundance of people. Once again, work and society changed.

It’s hard to put a number on the job displacement caused by the industrial revolution and manufacturing automation — many of these changes happened before consistent and accurate statistics were kept. It’s easier to do so now — over 30 million people are projected to lose their jobs in the U.S. as the machines continue their unstoppable advance. And unlike previous upheavals, many of the jobs lost won’t be in manufacturing or agriculture, but across the entire workforce. Even the finance industry is bracing to cut employment in half. Automation isn’t new, but suddenly it feels different — It may not be the AI apocalypse Hollywood envisioned, but it can sure feel like it.

AI Think, Therefore AI Am

The biggest recent change in the man vs. machine conflict is the rise of artificial intelligence in the workplace. Where earlier machines could do one or two incredibly simple mechanical tasks, modern robots can handle a multitude of much more complex processes. These range from the relatively simple and straightforward, for example, preparing your taxes, to the incredibly complex, like accurately detecting genetic disorders from sequenced genes. We have AI that helps you writeAIs that write for you, and AIs that grade your writing. You can even listen to AI-generated music, which still has some way to go, but is far from the worst music ever.

Marketing is no stranger to algorithms and AI, especially digital marketing. From the very beginning, this field has revolved around algorithms: trying to understand and game search engine results, placing advertising in front of the right customer at the right time and figuring out which customers are likely to spend money and which are just browsing. We buy advertising programmatically and build AI-guided user journeys. In 2018, marketing AI attracted over $2.5 billion in investments. Clearly, the marketing world loves artificial intelligence. But the question is, should we? And what effect will further investment into AI have on our industry and our society?

AI-Ming for the Future

We won’t hold you in suspense — the answer to the first question is an undeniable yes! That goes double for challenger brands looking to even the field against established players. As scary as AI may be to large companies, for small start-up brands they are nothing short of a complete game-changer.

The things AI is great at tend to be the things that are hardest to scale, especially for challenger brands that don’t have the human resources of established competitors: examining large quantities of data, sorting and organizing, identifying patterns, cleaning and categorizing. These tasks are the backbone of the modern marketing toolbox, powering techniques like mass personalization, enhanced buyer targeting, and analytics, omnichannel tracking, and engagement. All techniques which not only drive sales and revenue but which give our customers better, more individualized experiences. Rather than fearing the rise of artificial intelligence, challenger brands can tap into this incredibly powerful resource to gain a leg up on larger brands.

The tools AI offers startup companies are exactly the tools that startup companies need to distinguish themselves from incumbents. AI can help you better understand your customers, which can, in turn, allow you to create better products and experiences. AI can then take over the arduous task of giving every one of your prospects a perfectly personalized experience that matches their behavior to the right product in the right way. Intelligent ad platforms, for example, can help position the right product ad on the right channel for the right user, giving small teams a way to effectively manage an omnichannel sales approach that would be impossible (or very time consuming) without automation. Instead of paying for dedicated teams for every channel your customers use, challenger brands can lean on machines to do the grunt work while they focus on product and strategy.

This can seem terrifying — after all, the implication of brands doing more with less might seem like less human-powered efforts or fewer job opportunities. The reality is much more positive. With fewer resources required to start and run a challenger brand, there has been a tremendous increase in entrepreneurship over the last few years. Between 2010 and 2015, the United States saw faster growth in the number of new businesses created than ever before. It’s not a coincidence that entrepreneurship goes hand in hand with automation, and that very same entrepreneurship is the answer to critics’ warnings that AI will lead to mass unemployment. Traditional brands may end up employing fewer people, but more brands will enter the marketplace, offsetting the losses.

Automation brought significant benefits to society, increasing living standards while improving the affected industries beyond measure. One need only compare a car made in the ‘60s to one made today to see the difference — a standard economy sedan will be more comfortable, better built, and more reliable than the most opulent mid-century luxury vehicle, largely because increased automation made mass production that much better.

Artificial intelligence promises to do the same for marketing, making customer experiences more personal and more powerful, leaving marketing professionals more time to dream of the next killer campaign instead of digging through spreadsheets to gain insight. And while the news may focus on the number of jobs lost to AI, we believe that the more important story is the number of new opportunities created.


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