Opinion

The rise of the Media Centaur

The AI revolution won’t be the end of the world for people in media agencies but only if we can overcome the ‘them’ versus ‘us’ mindset says Alex Concannon.

As artificial intelligence (AI) becomes mainstream, it feels like we are careering past a point of no return. The data-driven approach to media buying we have proudly cultivated is going to render us all obsolete as we are replaced by computers. Or will it?

The impact of artificial intelligence on our workforce looks bleak. No industry is deemed ‘safe’. Two academics from Oxford University concluded nearly 50% of all jobs in the US were at risk from computerisation while a Forrester forecast predicted 7% of these jobs would be gone by 2025. When Elon Musk addressed the World Government Summit in Dubai, he posited that AI won’t just take our jobs but a jobless future would destroy our identity and sense of purpose. Time to bail, right?

I’m more optimistic about our prospects, however, we need to reframe the issue at hand. We will never win the zero-sum game of who does the job better, man or machine. Computers can do many things quicker, cheaper and more efficiently than us. We need to stop focusing on who does the job better and work out how to do it best.

‘Best’ comes from removing the dichotomy of ‘them’ or ‘us’. By opening ourselves up to symbiotic relationships between man and machine, we get better baseline performance supercharged with human ingenuity.

This isn’t just wishful thinking but a proven concept. After chess player Garry Kasparov lost to super computer Deep Blue, he hypothesised the machine didn’t beat him because it was a better player but because it had instantaneous access to a database with all the possible moves in chess. If Kasparov could tap into the same information, he believed he would win, a concept that gave birth to a new sport, Freestyle chess. These results offer a path into the future: today’s best chess player is not a super computer but a hybrid team of programs and people called Intagrand. While the programs provide informed recommendations regarding what move to play next, the human players assess new situations and overrule the machine when appropriate.

This fusion of human and machine is known as a ‘Centaur’, calling on the mythical half human, half horse beast.

The machines need us humans

A limitation of artificial intelligence is its ability to deal with unpredictability. Any data that underpins a machine is ultimately flawed because it is based on something that has already happened. In rapidly evolving environments like media, robots will still struggle to differentiate anomalous results from immediate shifts in the environment. Machines will be challenged to decipher whether outliers are lone events to be ignored or something they need to act upon.

Media Centaurs, on the other hand, can leverage automated consul from their AI partners and make the final decision on channel plans and the optimisation of campaigns. Again, this is not new behaviour as we already leverage recommendation engines to identify new products, music and movies without them becoming prescriptive. We’re simply applying the process to a new situation.

The best media agencies of the future will not be the ones that automate everything with algorithms and machine learning but the agencies that embrace this concept of Media Centaurs.

Limitless possibilities

If the above scenario is how we ‘know’ we will be able to work with robot partners, the unknown potential is even greater. The people who will thrive as Media Centaurs will be the ones who don’t have fixed notions about what human-machine collaboration looks like. They will develop new skills and adapt to the opportunities as they arise.

While still in relative infancy, marrying human understanding with the power of data is critical to how we approach our client’s business. Data must inform but not prescribe.

With IBM revealing earlier this year it has started to integrate Watson’s artificial intelligence capabilities into media buying, and brands already replacing agencies with AI, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion we’ll all soon be out of a job.

Crucially, the impact of AI on our industry is not certain so long as we continue to challenge how we view human-machine partnerships and identify how we can add value to AI instead of the other way around.

Alex Concannon is the national analytics director for Maxus Communications Australia

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