Artificial Intelligence, Rise of Agents and The Death of Choice


Michael Nicholas, Entrepreneur in Residence, Assembly

The Same Like Never Before

Everyone is talking about bots. Whether it is a panel discussion, keynote or headline, they’re all the rage. But are they just the latest version of trendy presentationware (remember Blockchain)? We’ve had chat and messaging for decades and social media for years – automated message robots aren’t new. What is new, however, is the availability of high quality Artificial Intelligence that supercharges their marketing effectiveness in a way that makes them unrecognizable to what we have seen in the past.

Artificial Intelligence moves us beyond the limits of the “scripted and rules-based” approaches we have seen in marketing since the AIMbot days (remember Jill020306?), toward real “Natural Language Understanding” most of have only glimpsed in The Jetsons or Star Trek. In 2016, the availability of A.I. moves NLU out of places like MIT, into consumers’ personal robots, providing a bridge to new kinds of marketing relationships.

Empathy and the door of Understanding

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. A.I. empowers machines to understand and learn from us and that door swings both ways. It enables people to relate to a bot as something familiar that makes you feel differently than you typically would about a machine. It’s why we like R2-D2 and BB-8. It’s why social robot JIBO was funded at 2,288% on Indiegogo. It’s why when Boston Dynamics posts a YouTube video showing engineers trying to knock over their “dog-like” robots to highlight their awesome gyroscope tech, people respond in the comments with things like “leave it alone” and “stop harassing it.” The Empathy that A.I. unlocks is key for brands because it opens the door to trust.

Unlocking Trust and Unleashing the Rise of Agents 

When a bot ceases being “just a machine”, it can earn your trust. If the bot can understand you, learn to makes good recommendations based on your habits and understand successful outcomes that make you pleased and fulfilled, it can ultimately become an agent you trust. It’s not about knowing everything and pretending to be a human - it’s about becoming a specific trusted agent by delivering repeated value in specific areas like travel, weather or entertainment.

Artificial Intelligence and The Death of Choice

The Matrix:

Neo: “But if you already know, how can I make a choice?”

The Oracle: ”Because you didn't come here to make the choice, you've already made it. You're here to try to understand *why* you made it. I thought you'd have figured that out by now.”

The A.I. agents we’re discussing in marketing implement “human in the loop” optimization much like the program predicting the next word I’m going to type while writing this. By seamlessly learning from my behavior to improve its ability to serve me better, by design it obscures choice by eliminating the options I see. So what? Well think about this - once an A.I. is a trusted agent of the user, why would it show them alternatives if it already had isolated and determined a successful brand solution (type of detergent, ride share service, airline, Italian restaurant)? Not sure, but it’s a scary thought if you're a marketer. If you’re a brand that’s a high scoring solution for a particular consumer, it’s the ultimate “lock-in.” If you’re not or represent a new offering, how do you get in? This level of control is why so many tech companies are interested in the space.

CMO’s and Agencies Think K.I.T.T., Not HAL 9000

When you think about A.I. in terms of “trusted agents,” the stakes are high. So why aren’t CMO’s and agencies jumping at this opportunity to be your A.I. agent’s “Go-To” brand?

A.I. is easier than ever to leverage, but not what client-side digital marketing or agency folks are used to. First, it’s not much to look at (in fact, it’s nothing to look at -  it’s syntax, vocabulary and diction-based). The technology is different, it’s not about pages, apps or ads (NLP Libraries!? Parsers?! This isn’t HTML5!). And to do it right, it’s a very tight combination of technical and creative, medium and message. Moreover, there are practical barriers to just getting started. How does a brand issue a brief? How does an agency take requirements? What’s the right combination of technologies for a brand’s marketing needs? Does a hotel need the same NLP libraries as a movie character? Does a commerce-bot for a retailer need the same parser as a service-bot for a bank? How do we brief the creative? Should our bot emulate an “English Butler” or a “Teenage Japanese Girl”? Who do I call to figure all this out?


What if the copywriter met the technologist before she fell into partnership with the art director? Imagine a creative relationship based on no graphics or visuals. Creative Character development based around vocabulary, diction and syntax. Marketing development built around conversational requirements and actions. Technical requirements based around the best combinations of Natural Language Processing libraries and Parsers. This “A.I.gency” would literally deliver “brand-as-service” instead of brand as message. Agencies that understand these differences and opportunities will be in high demand very soon. Moreover, the most progressive brands that understand what’s at stake will seek them out aggressively to learn how to use Artificial Intelligence to connect genuinely with millions of consumers, simultaneously, like never before.

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