AI Takes the Lead
A new year and CES was back to kick off a new round of technology and brand innovations. What used to be a showcase for the discrete niche of consumer electronics, covering TVs and audio devices, now presents innovations that touch virtually every aspect of our lives.
Multinationals and start-ups alike came together to unveil their innovations, ranging from the smart home, autonomous vehicles, drones, virtual reality, energy, education, food, finance and fitness…to name a few. As such, it’s imperative for every brand and company in attendance to be taking note of the trends going on.
The massive production scale originating in the smartphone ecosystem has driven technology innovation forward and driven down technology costs at an accelerated rate since 2010. It means that disruptive innovation can come from anywhere around the world or, more interestingly, from any industry sector.
To date, the “plug and play” aspect of technology has meant innovation in hardware has always thrived, but now in 2017 the world of big data has morphed into the exciting area of Artificial Intelligence (AI). As such, the data and software side of technology is becoming equally accelerated and potentially even more disruptive. Just as cheap sensors, motors and screens have been combined to create smart connected devices of every kind, they are now being connected through APIs to globally scale intelligence capabilities. This creates new cognitive propositions that can think for themselves and create new kinds of value for brands to leverage.
CES 2017’s big winner was Amazon’s Alexa. Originally this voice controlled AI suite was launched in late 2014, with very little fanfare, embedded in a connected speaker called Echo. Since then, 3 million have been sold in the US alone. Its success has proved something of a surprise as we discover that we are apparently far happier talking to a device in the privacy of our own home, than to our smartphone out on the street. Alexa already claims over 7,000 skills, mainly developed by 3rd parties, that allow her to check if your train is late, automatically order groceries or (as I know to great personal cost) play your six-year-old daughter’s favourite pop songs constantly at top volume. Since Alexa’s launch many brand partnerships have been announced globally, enabling a natural, intuitive and intelligent voice interaction with devices ranging from cars to TVs. Brands all over Europe have been keen to partner with Alexa. German car brand BMW partnered their ‘Connected Car’ and even energy brands like EDF have seen the potential of this technology. Currently, Alexa is only available to buy in the US, UK and Germany, so we will have to wait and see the true extent of demand across the rest of Europe.
In keeping with the trend from the last few years, where every new device was connected, or smart, today, devices are increasingly cognitive or AI powered. At CES we saw the AI toothbrush, an AI powered cookery robot, and of course, the AI refrigerator. (I would note from CES over the past decade, that it seems we are able to understand the entire contemporary technology ecosystem through the lens of refrigerators).
We can expect to see the scaling of the new immersive technologies on the spectrum from augmented reality, through mixed reality, to full-presence based virtual reality (VR). The capability to supplement or replace our real world experience is falling in price and we are likely to hit an inflection point in the next two years. Innovations such as Intel’s Project Alloy allows us to play VR experiences mapped on to our real world environment. This means that the living room coffee table is now an instrument panel in a space rocket or a poker table in a Wild West saloon. Mysterious start up, Magic Leap, has received stratospheric levels of venture capital and promises to reinvent the augmented reality space. Brands will need to track which technology promises actually turn in to sustainable experiences, and understand what value they can add as entertainment or embedded service.
The winners of the smartphone wars were those who could attract the best application development to make their platforms more useful and engaging than the next. Consumers will likely congregate around the AI platforms that prove the most useful and most engaging.
Both the hardware and software side of the supply chain has matured and scaled to the point where great ideas can have an impact globally, in increasingly short timeframes. Many of the engineering problems have been solved but, as you would expect, there is always a pipeline of new challenges to keep the innovative minds of the CES crowd busy.
Now, more than ever, we need a marketer’s mind-set to critically analyse these technologies to understand the scalability and application to real world issues that might affect everyday consumers around the world. It is through this understanding that we will see the breakthrough in entertainment products, frictionless purchasing, proactive services and cognitive products that will drive growth well in to the 2020s.