Robot overlords or perfect partners?

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AI could be the secret to happy, healthy brand relationships, says Phenomenon's strategy director.

There was a time, back in consumer prehistory, when a brand was a simple thing. Little more than a name or a symbol, it was an identifier and a promise of quality. But over time, brands came to realize the power of having a deeper connection with their customers; they wanted to offer us the good life, so they took things to the next level. 

They got emotional. And before we knew it, we were in a relationship. Consumer relationships based on emotional connections make perfect sense for brands. But here’s the problem: most brands have a very self-centered sense of what a relationship really is. If they were friends, we’d have started giving them the silent treatment a long time ago. 

In the real world, successful relationships are reciprocal, proven by words and actions. It’s not enough to just say, "I love you"—even if you say it 10 times a day. Without the actions to back it up, the words lose their meaning. Yes, anniversaries matter, and surprise trips to Paris are always appreciated (unless, I suppose, you live in Paris), but it’s the hundreds of everyday micro-transactions that prove genuine commitment.

Here’s where too many brands behave like crappy partners. They never offer us a glass of wine and a foot rub, take the rubbish out with being asked, or give us a shoulder to cry on in the middle of the night. That’s what a real relationship looks like. 

In many cases, it’s not a brand’s fault. As consumers, we’re more demanding and fickle than ever. Putting real-live humans at our beck and call 24/7 is expensive and impractical. But with so many companies harvesting and productizing the minutiae of our daily lives, it’s about time we demanded a little more love in return. 

Enter artificial intelligence.

So far, the popular attitude towards AI has been rather ambivalent We’re often more focused on AI’s threats ("It’s taking our jobs!") and deficiencies ("It doesn’t understand me! It gets everything wrong!") rather than its benefits. But the reality is more optimistic and, perhaps reassuringly, less sensational: AI has the power to be the perfect partner in those micro-transactions that real relationships thrive on. That’s because at its best, AI shares four of the most fundamental attributes of human relationships at their best: selflessness, honesty, anticipation and acceptance.

Think of them as "Good Life Principles." They may not be glamorous, but it’s hard to imagine a healthy relationship between two or more human beings that’s not built on them. And as those of us who are both human and have been in relationships will know, it’s when we stop behaving in these ways that things start to fall apart.

Of course, AI is still only as good as its creators’ intentions. Big business is no stranger to ulterior motives, but there is already a host of forward-thinking companies that are applying these principles to show AI at its best (so far). And it’s no accident that they’re also the most prominent disruptors of their categories.

Selflessness: From Siri to Alexa to Cortana, we can now choose from a host of chipper personal assistants always at the ready to answer questions and perform mundane tasks. Another example is Your.MD, which is applying the same model to help us with the 24/7 task of managing our health in ways a real doctor can’t.

Honesty: Robo-investing platforms such as Betterment and Wealthfront have democratized investing for average consumers, removing the biases inherent to even the most experienced investment consultants.

Anticipation: Nest has changed the way we relate to our homes with smart devices that learn our habits in order to create a safer, more comfortable environment. Netflix has made figuring out how to accurately recommend personalized content its mission. Also, John Paul’s digital concierge uses predictive algorithms to connect its users to experiences and services tailored to their personal preferences. 

Acceptance: Cogito uses AI to help customer service representatives overcome human bias and build greater empathy by reading nonverbal cues and suggesting conversational guidance in real time.

What most of those have in common is a more fluid kind of relationship between product, service and consumer—a relationship in which consumers can engage directly with an experience, like find a movie, invest money or be comfortable, without anything or anyone getting in the way. AI is a liberating force, taking care of the everyday micro-transactions that keep successful relationships ticking over, freeing us to engage with brands at a higher level.

But to make this a reality, brands need to look at every aspect of their customer experience and ask: Where are we being bad partners? How can we apply Good Life Principles to build a better relationship? How can we use AI to bring it to life?

By taking this human-centered approach to artificial intelligence, brands can finally show they have the emotional intelligence required to be the partners they’ve always promised to be.

Martin Heaton is Strategy Director at Phenomenon.