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Back to the Future of Listening

15 May 2018  |  Tracey Follows 
Back to the Future of Listening

After decades of broadcast media telling people what to buy and what to do, voice activated machines have found a way to first listen to and then respond to consumers. By Tracey Follows

A few weeks ago whilst presenting to some senior marketeers I was challenged on the Gartner forecast that suggests by 2020 we’ll be talking more to bots than we will be talking to people. That clearly could not be the case, they said. And I can see why two weeks ago that looked unlikely.

But that was before Google Duplex.

It’s been all over the internet, but if you are unfamiliar, Google took to the stage at its I/O to demo its ‘Duplex’ service which is essentially an AI that operates in full duplex - that is to say it can talk and listen at the same time.

At the demonstration, Google showed how the intelligent digital assistant could call your hairdresser or your local restaurant and book an appointment, or reserve a table for dinner. Not only was the assistant accurate, it displayed conversational intonation and understanding that would leave any person on the other end of the line convinced they were chatting to a human being.

Whilst everyone was marvelling at the smartness of this assistant - something that is as close to a real PA as you can probably get - I was thinking about the respondent on the other end of the phone.

Firstly, was it fair of the digital assistant to masquerade as a human being, tricking the recipient into thinking that they were speaking with a human?

This then begs the question as to whether it would be preferable for digital assistants to introduce themselves as just that: a bot self-identifying as a bot. After all, in an age in which transparency is so valued, and trustworthiness is in such high demand, declaring not only who is calling you but what is calling you, does not seem unreasonable.

The second thing that struck me was how quick everyone was to jump to the conclusion that the receiver of the call was indeed human. Surely the digital assistant calling the hairdresser or the restaurant on behalf of its owner would be met with another digital assistant at the business end.

In fact, employing digital assistants who can operate in full duplex is more likely to be adopted by businesses than consumers in the first instance.

A week on and it is now not hard to see how machine to machine communication could become more prevalent than human to human or human to machine communication.

Two weeks beforehand, Amazon had launched Alexa Echo Dot Kids Edition. Talk to anyone about this and one of the first concerns is whether kids will become demanding and impolite in their requests of the assistant.

Rather than the machine positively learning the needs of the human, the human (child) could learn how to demand and instruct the machine to do its bidding without so much as a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. So much so, that now Google Assistant’s forthcoming ‘Pretty Please’ feature will remind kids to say the magic word before complying with their wishes.

Now stretch your mind back to the 1990s. It was then that HHCL published a manifesto for what they saw as an emerging world of interactive. ‘Marketing at a Point of Change’ as it was called, made the compelling case for adopting a new way of seeing things. As it said:

“When we talked about communication in the past, we were really talking about sending our messages down a one-way street.

"Now communication can be effectively and meaningfully two-way...communication is about listening as well as talking. Just as the concept of ‘evolution’ changed the way we think of ourselves and our place in the world, so interactivity will transform companies’ view of the customer and how to relate to them."

HHCL made this concept tangible by explaining that ‘poster advertising’ would shift to ‘street dialogue’ and ‘direct mail and radio’ would become ‘kitchen dialogue’.

Could they have been any more prophetic? When one considers that there are over 250 Alexa ‘skills’ in food and drink alone, anyone in any kitchen can now learn to prepare anything. Kitchen dialogue has finally arrived, not thanks to an ad agency or marketing supremo but to what is, to all intents and purposes, a logistics company. Because whilst HHCL had perhaps envisaged this kind of dialogue to be human to human, in reality, that dialogue has come to be facilitated by a machine.

In an excellent article by Kevin Wong, it becomes clear that the holy grail of digital assistants is to use the voice to mirror the emotional state of the user. Within that piece, Scott Brave explains that “the best way to get someone to change his or her state is to first match that state emotionally and then bring that person to a place that’s soothing."

This leads the author to conclude: "the future is no longer about developing a single voice that appeals to the widest audience possible. That’s just a stop-gap measure on the path towards the real goal: to create a voice that changes in response to the human beings around it."

Ironically then, it is voice-activated machines that bring forth a whole new opportunity for consumers to once again feel listened to. After decades of broadcast media telling people what to buy, and how to act and where to go, voice services have found a way to first listen to - and then respond to - consumers.

John Griffiths and I write at length in our book 98% Pure Potato, the origins of advertising account planning, that Stephen King and Jeremy Bullmore were adamant that the task of advertising should not be about what advertisements do to people but how people use and respond to advertisements; that the main focus of an advertising professional should not be the stimulus but the response.

Now it seems machines have learnt the lesson that plenty of humans in communications did not.

I’ll leave the last word to HHCL: “look on every new medium as a conversation opener."

Well, let’s do our best not to make that job the sole preserve of machines.

Tracey Follows is the founder of Futuremade and writes on the subject of strategic foresight each month for Mediatel


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