Is Watson the Creative of the Future?
Does Big Data inspire or hinder creative thinking?
I love data — they are great.
I’m fond of knowing things.
I used to read encyclopedias as a kid. Sometimes I still do, when I find an old one lying around a holiday home, say. Out of date ones are especially fun.
Do you remember when Google launched and suddenly the web made some weird kind of sense? I do. It was magical.
Suddenly you weren’t poring over endless pages of keyword hits on Alta Vista or Asking Jeeves to find something useful. It changed everything. It completely changed how jobs work. It did it with data, lots of data, made by people, connecting seemingly disparate things together, called links.
Knowing how to use Google, how Google thinks, became the primary skill of a knowledge worker.
It changed how the advertising industry worked. Slowly at first, and still not in all the ways I think it should have.
For example, Google Search Trends is one of the first research tools any planner should look to. To understand relative market share and brand salience, it’s far more important — and real— than most expensive brand trackers. It’s made of real, aggregated behavior, of almost everyone — not claimed responses from surveys of some people.
And it’s free! And makes its own graphs. Magic.
When you get lots of data aggregated, you can begin to see patterns. Things move up, things move down. Like search volume.
Or stock prices.
They reflect the bid prices currently moving through the exchange[s].
Millions of trades happen every day, most undertaken by algorithms, at famously high frequency. The prices move in response to the interaction of a huge number of players and actions. So, it’s pretty much impossible to predict what they will do in the short term.
But whichever way they move people find a story that explains it. Magic.
Stories are much easier for our brains to understand than hugely complex fluctuations in numbers caused by the actions of many self-interested parties operating in an environment of partial transparency.
We find the stochastic nature of reality too much to bear.
It occurs to me that the high frequency trading algorithms that helped turn the stock market into a software-to-software casino, are very creative indeed, and can only exist because of really fast and huge data.
Creative, but not in a good or productive way, overall.
The “algos”, with names like Ambush and Raider, [if you work in branding, this should be telling] used latency variations to manipulate prices, and skimmed money off the top, inside dark pools and across different exchanges.
They even managed to change the structure of stock markets themselves to make it easier for them to predate on other investors. Most people, most banks even, couldn’t even see what they were doing. They couldn’t even tell they were being ripped off.
[Yes, I’ve been reading Flash Boys by Michael Lewis. It’s all about huge data.]
What is/are “big data”?
Massive huge enormous.
Apparently it is/they are data in sufficient quantities that you need scientists and software to make sense of it.
I’m pretty sure Google’s data were big, huge even, before “big data” was big.
I think any kind of input can inspire creativity.
But we should be wary since our brains love patterns and we can find stories to explain any pattern we want to find in a big enough data set.
Remember the movie PI? A bit like that.
I’ve read about a half dozen articles in the trade press researching how big data is used in our industry.
The articles are interestingly vague in my opinion.
I’m beginning to suspect that all this real time personalization they are talking about is just serving more and more, ever creepier banners to people who already hate them.
I think I’ve made my arguments about banners pretty clearly before. One third of impressions served are fraudulent, one third are not viewable, one fifth of users use ad-blocking software.
And that’s just the stuff we know about.
My concern is that the advertising industry is in danger of being taken for a ride by the same people who have destroyed trust in banking.
I have a friend who works in finance. He told me he recently bumped into some old colleagues who had left finance to set up an ad-tech platform exchange DSP DMP trading desk thing.
Using their knowledge of pricing, and trading, and high frequencies, and algorithms, they said advertising was like “shooting fish in a barrel” compared to working in finance. We are a decade behind where finance is, and we didn’t start out being that good at numbers in the first place.
But, as I said, I love data and I love technology.
I believe interesting ideas are non-obvious combinations, usually ones that solve the problem at hand. I think, therefore, it is possible to imagine a correlation engine of sufficiently advanced algorithmic intelligence, that it can begin to make these non-obvious combinations.
In fact, it exists. The IBM system named Watson has been inventing new recipes — initially as an activation for SXSW.
Here are some it has created:
Creole Shrimp-Lamb Dumpling; Baltic Apple Pie; Austrian Chocolate Burrito; Swiss-Thai Asparagus Quiche; Portuguese Lobster Roll
They might be delicious, I’ve not tried them, but I feel it has a way to go before it matches a human creative mind.
Which is one of the reasons why I’m working with a creative technology start-up called SEENAPSE.
It’s being made with data, lots of data, made by people, connecting seemingly disparate things together, called Seenapses.
It uses technology to store, tag and share non-obvious connections made by human minds. It creates pathways from idea to other ideas and so acts like an inspiration engine.
I encourage you to check it out as you consider whether BIG DATA inspires or hinders creativity, and wish you best of luck with your papers.
For more information and to enter visit www.warc.com/admapprize2015. The closing date is January 31st 2015, and there’s a $5,000 cash prize to the winner.
Faris is the co-founder of itinerant strategy and innovation consultancy Genius Steals, built on the belief that ideas are new combinations.
He is the author of Paid Attention: Innovative Advertising For a Digital World, which will be released April 2015 and contributing author of Digital State  and What is a Brand? , all published by Kogan Page.
Despite living on the road, you can reliably find him on Twitter @faris and at farisyakob.com