If I had asked any of my schoolmates what an “algorithm” was, their eyes would have glazed over and they would probably have asked me what I had been smoking. Fast-forward a few decades and we’ve got the algorithmification of everything, including marketing.
Those glazed looks would’ve happened a long time ago, long before Facebook was a glimmer in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye and he had started to bring together the more than 2 billion people who log in at least once a month. That Facebook population is now what Evan Osnos of the New Yorker says, were it a country; “ … would have the largest population on Earth … [and] as many adherents as Christianity.” When they log in, they are shaking hands with unnumbered algorithms and putting into those invisible fingers their faith and their data to be parsed, analyzed and manipulated, and hopefully not stolen.
What is an algorithm? Programmers like to say it is a word used by them when they don’t want to bother explaining what they do.
And because algorithms have become so ubiquitous, we seldom give them a thought — except when our IT colleagues start telling us why making any small change in our marketing program will take weeks or months and cost a bundle, or until something goes badly wrong as Facebook and others have discovered about their hacked data.
Our legislators, not usually well-versed on technology matters, have now started making a lot of noise about regulations: They are closing the server door after the data has bolted — an unlikely way to solve the essential problems.
Automation has always been the Holy Grail for marketers; not surprising when the ability, speed and relatively low cost of using artificial intelligence (AI) to number-crunch and manage segmentation of media and analysis of data gets better and better every year. eMarketer reports that: “About four in 10 of the worldwide advertisers surveyed by MediaMath and Econsultancy said they use AI for media spend optimization. This is another application of AI that is increasing among marketers as their demand-side platforms add AI features to increase the probability that a given programmatic bid will win its auction.”
Where is it headed? No one knows for sure. It’s all in the hands of the algorithms and they appear to be multiplying like rabbits. If you revere Darwin, as I do, you’ll expect them to get better and better. But before you totally buy into that, you would do well to read Melanie Mitchell’s thoughtful New York Times article “Artificial Intelligence Hits the Barrier of Meaning.”
There are more and more times when we applaud the use of the algorithms and can see that if properly created, they offer many benefits for almost every area of our marketing practice, as well as other areas of our lives. We really don’t have to panic (yet) about the machines and their algorithms taking over. As Neil Hughes wrote here last month; “The reality is that machines learn from systems and processes that are programmed by humans, so our destiny is still very much in our own hands.”
Machines screw up just like we do; and all the more so, because they are doing just what we told them to do.
All this machine thinking doesn’t come without dangerous side effects. Sometimes, when we try to communicate with inflexible AI systems supposedly designed to simplify and ease customer interactions, the “I” in “AI” becomes an “S,” replacing “A-Intelligence” with “A-stupidity.”
If, as defined, “an algorithm is a procedure or formula for solving a problem, based on conducting a sequence of specified actions,” we can only optimistically hope that the specified actions will take into account individual customer differences and make allowances for them. The moments when they don’t are when we start screaming and swearing; especially if we are on the customer end of the transactions.
As The New York Times wrote in a recent article: “The truth is that nobody knows what algorithmification of the human experience will bring.”
“It’s telling that companies like Facebook are only beginning to understand, much less manage, any harm caused by their decision to divert an ever-growing share of human social relations through algorithms. Whether they set out to or not, these companies are conducting what is arguably the largest social re-engineering experiment in human history, and no one has the slightest clue what the consequences are.”
However important algorithmification may seem to us, our marketing efforts and our use of AI and its algorithms are not very significant in the greater scheme of things outside of our limited business perspective. But don’t dismiss their growing impact on every facet of our future lives. As data guru Stephen H. Yu opined in his recent piece “Replacing Unskilled Data Marketers With AI”:
“In the future, people who can wield machines will be in secure places — whether they are coders or not — while new breeds of logically illiterate people will be replaced by the machines, one-by-one.”
You had better start to develop a meaningful relationship with your algorithms — while there is still time.