Help or hindrance?

Why AI could destroy more jobs than it creates.’
‘Experts warn that AI poses a clear and present danger.’
‘AI cyberattacks will be almost impossible for humans to stop.’

Just a few headlines from recent months. Not a particularly rosy picture of technology, I think you’ll agree! Even the late, great Stephen Hawking expressed fears that AI might replace humans altogether. It’s a huge topic and there are genuine concerns.  

At the start of the year we introduced a new internal initiative, ‘Razor Drive’; where every so often we select a topic which will challenge us and stretch our imaginations. A topic that, in some way, relates to market research – but also doesn’t. Our first was Artificial Intelligence. We ran sessions to help understand AI by digging beneath the surface to get to the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

A March 2018 special report from The Economist pointed out that companies from a range of sectors harnessed AI to forecast demand, hire workers, and to deal with customers. In 2017, companies spent almost $22bn on AI-related mergers and acquisitions; about 26 times more than in 2015.

This led me to think about the role that AI plays in the world of consumer quant research.

The pessimistic mindset is all too easy to guess: ‘We’re all doomed! Machines will take over our jobs and leave us redundant!’.

A balanced and informed viewpoint is often important in these instances, so I’ve done some digging. There’s no questioning the fact that advances in technology have (and will continue to) alter the way we do our jobs. But it’s not all bad…

Recent developments in AI have made identifying emotions & personality traits more accessible and more accurate than ever before. Businesses such as iMotions simplify advanced biometric research by providing companies with the hardware & software to move the ‘lab’ to their office (or location of their choice).

With this technology, eye-tracking, facial expression analysis, and galvanic skin response are all possible on a large scale. We can get an accurate view on where people are looking and how they feel about something based on their body’s natural responses. Other companies such as EyeSee and Realeyes use respondent webcams to detect emotional reaction in a simple and non-intrusive way. The ability to read emotions like this is a game-changer for any researcher, adding another important layer to our understanding.

Trendwatching recently unveiled that there are many fresh examples of brands harnessing this kind of deep human data to help provide even more personalised products and services. For example, Expedia and Palace Resorts ran a campaign with a series of ads split across a screen and used eye-tracking to see which type of holiday consumers were focusing on. 7-Eleven in Thailand and Walmart in the US have also introduced facial recognition technology to track shopper moods around their stores and, therefore, tailor products and experiences accordingly.

AI has also allowed for far speedier analysis of video, audio and text from samples. Companies such as Crimson Hexagon have developed platforms with the ability to process large amounts of natural language data. They’ve also developed algorithms powered by machine learning to detect patterns in online conversation and to automate the classification of these attributes on a large scale.

So where does this leave us humble researchers? In my view, there’s still very much a role for humans in collating and interpreting this data. Common sense and human observation will surely remain the driving force for most successful projects, when providing well-rounded insights to our clients.

Alongside these automated techniques, focused and direct research methods still have a huge role to play in helping clients to tackle specific business issues. Only humans can truly understand clients’ businesses and the wider context – and then use this knowledge to craft an engaging and informed narrative; a fine-tuned narrative that clients can use to action change.

AI is still very much in its infancy. There’s so much more to come, and no one really knows what the future holds. But, in its current form, we should consider it a blessing rather than a curse. The more we acknowledge and understand the benefits of technology enhancing our understanding of human behaviour, the better!