Cannes 2015: The rise of the machines?

Sapient Nitro's chief strategy officer for Europe says we are still a long way from seeing a machine win a Film Lion using an algorithm.

The posters around Cannes last week advertised the release of Terminator Genisys – the latest in the blockbuster franchise.

In the original Terminator movie, nuclear war is unleashed by Skynet, a man-made synthetic intelligence system designed to protect the world which gains self-awareness after spreading through millions of computers. Its human creators are unable to deactivate it. In the interests of self-preservation Skynet determines that humanity should be exterminated or enslaved. Skynet operates through machines - most famously Terminators sent from the future to destroy human resistance.

In Cannes the topic of technology and data and its relationship with creativity was never far away. It isevident in everything from the subtitle of the Innovation Lions (data x tech x ideas) to talks entitled ‘Programmatic and advertising context – is there a conflict?’, ‘Meet the self-assembling ad of the future’ or ‘Is there a conflict between data and creativity?’.

Even the playful Random Grand Prix Generator points to it. The introduction of a whole new category in 2015 – the carefully named Creative Data Lions (note the order of the words) is yet more proof of fascination at the intersection of creativity and technology.

The default industry position seems to be that data and technology are great inspiration for ideas and creativity and machines will never replace human beings. As Dave Droga boldly puts it: "I love the friction between creativity and data. Data and science is liberating for creativity because it offers a foundation. We’re not scared of it." 

And yet the question still needs to be asked – Is adland facing its own Skynet moment?

The use of data-based insight in creating great ideas is nothing new for planners. The fundamental change is that technology is enabling the collection and analysis of behavioural data at unprecedented scale and in real-time. Added to this we are witnessing extraordinary growth in the uptake of new digitalservices such as Uber, Airbnb and Tinder. (The last of these is recording an incredible 16,000 swipes per second). Our collective and individual "digital exhaust" is way beyond any human being’s ability to process. Machines are already addressing some of the challenges faced by brands and advertisers. 

Programmatic and real-time optimisation of campaigns are widespread in digital marketing. Algorithms learn about our shopping habits to serve us personalized messages. Real-time feedback loops in social are remotely analysed. So how far are we away from making ourselves wholly redundant?

Could intelligent machines ever be ‘creative’?

The latest thinking suggests not – at least not for a while. In a recent interview the authors of The Second Machine Age : Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that "Digital technologies are doing for human brainpower what the steam engine and related technologies did for human muscle power in the Industrial revolution".

They highlight three key skill areas where human beings are still far superior to machines. Encouragingly one of these is high end creativity – the kind which creates new business ideas, scientific breakthroughs, art and literature.

(The others, if you are interested, are mobility and dexterity – apparently robots struggle with tasks such as waiting on tables - and emotionally led activities such as caring, nurturing and leading). A little ominously they do point out that machines are beginning to make inroads into each.

Let’s now go back to the 2015 Creative Data Lions. Three Gold winners clearly demonstrate the power of data to inspire the ‘high end’ creativity and problem-solving referred to above. The Australian Census commission created a SimCity-like game based on their data, turning code into something engaging where residents could play at building projects and implementing policies.

The Mexican Red Cross discovered that 5 per cent of patients die due to lack of basic medical information being available in emergency situations. By creating SOS SMS, responders were able to access this information from an injured person’s phone helping to save lives.

The campaign for Russian adoption agency, Change One Life, used facial recognition data to match upchildren for adoption with potential parents who share a similar appearance reducing chances of rejection.

With five out of six Golds going to Public Service or NGOs does this indicate an underlying tension between data and creativity in marketing? The Gold for Madden Gif generator seems to be more about UGC than data. Given this is the inaugural year of the Creative Data Lions, it will naturally take time to define the category and get to boundary-breaking work.

So we still seem to be a long way from a machine winning a Film Lion using an algorithmic formula based on every previous winner, a programmatic desk winning a Media Lion or a female cyborg chairing the Glass Lions jury. If I am wrong, then by the time you read this I will have been taken out by a Terminator in the form of a Lion sent from advertising’s dystopian future.

Neil Dawson is the chief strategy officer, Europe, for SapientNitro

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