Profiting from the Rise of the Machines

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During a discussion of the implications of robotics and artificial intelligence for humanity, physicist Stephen Hawking once remarked: “Success in creating artificial intelligence would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last.”

Hawking, of course, was referring to the possibility — long theorized by science-fiction writers and the makers of Hollywood blockbusters — that once we build a machine that is capable of thinking better than people, human beings will no longer be able to control technology, and will essentially be creating the engine of their own demise.

Techies call the moment when machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence “The Singularity.” This phrase was coined by Ray Kurzweil, a director of engineering at Google who predicted that 2044 is when it will occur. Others think it will happen sooner, including more than a few who argue it is happening now.

Whether you believe in The Singularity or not, medical robots can now perform many surgeries better than humans, while IBM’s Watson computer can beat Jeopardy champs, not to mention create new recipes for gourmet chefs. In Japan, a software program recently wrote an entire novel, so even the brain itself, the engine of our imagination and creativity, is under siege. Simply put, sophisticated forms of artificial intelligence along with Big Data and the Internet of Things have already created a communications network that operates much like a brain, with personal computers and mobile devices serving as synapses. And so it is really not too far-fetched to suggest that this techno-neural network will eventually evolve into something representative of another form of consciousness — one better, faster and smarter than any human.

From a business perspective, the important thing to understand is that humanity is creating its own competition, and that creates plenty of opportunities for marketers who understand the role that brands can play in the tug-of-war between man and machine.

Progress always leads to disruption and anxiety. This time something additional will happen —humans will lose their sense of uniqueness. Just as the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo dislodged Earth and people from the centre of creation, the continuing advances of technology make human accomplishments seem smaller and less significant.

The psychological impact of this displacement cannot be overstated — and this is where marketers and brand managers should take note, because opportunities will emerge as people cope with the repercussions of rapid change, such as the loss of identity, income and social status.

Keep in mind that one function of brands is providing consumers with a name they can trust. And as the world grows more complex and multi-faceted, this brand function will be more important than ever as consumers look for guidance and comfort. This presents a huge opportunity for older brands that have stood the test of time to re-assert themselves. Old Spice, GM, Dove, Levi’s, Campbell’s, Gillette, Lego, Lipton — these are all legacy brands that have seen a recent surge in popularity because they have successfully connected themselves with consumers who want to face the future with a trusted bridge to the past.

The social dislocation caused by an increasingly mechanized society will spur many people to re-examine their humanity and focus on self-actualization and transcendence. For these consumers, the old drivers of brands — status/social acceptance/security — will be far less powerful than their desire to find purpose and meaning in life. Demand for this has already spawned a number of booming businesses. Roughly one in 20 people in the United States, for example, now practice yoga regularly, driving demand for yoga studios and instructors, not to mention such clothing companies as Lululemon and Prana with brands that represent a fashion/lifestyle choice.

According to Google analytics, use of the search term “mindfulness” — a catch-all term for a variety of techniques for minimizing distractions, living in the moment, and enjoying the here and now — has increased more than 400 per cent over the past ten years. Markets for massage therapy, nature experiences, organic foods, relaxation devices and other stress-busting/health-related products and services will grow along with interest in meditation as more and more Baby Boomers seek ways to improve their health and maximize enjoyment of their remaining years.

Apple and Samsung are the current leaders when it comes to making technology less intimidating, even friendly. But the Internet of Things will require a vast array of devices with interfaces that do not scare or put off consumers. So opportunities will abound for companies that specialize in making the interaction between people and machines more seamless — though developing must-have devices will continue to involve much trial and error.

All we really know about the future is that the Rise of the Machines will create business opportunities to help consumers adjust to change, so at this point there is really no reason to fear The Singularity unless you are a brand manager stuck in the past.

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