Little Black Book | Are We Human? Or Are We Dinner?

Alexa dictated the menu and decor at Cheil London’s inaugural Drive event — but was she the perfect host? Laura Swinton finds out…

With 22% of UK consumers using a voice assistant today, it appears that more and more of us are relying on Alexa, Google Home, Siri or Bixby to help sort our lives out. But would you ever trust an artificial intelligence to plan an important social event… say one to which you’d invited several clients and members of the press?

That’s exactly what Cheil did last week at their inaugural Drive event, hosted at their London office — an evening that combined creativity and technology, on this occasion to explore the growing world of AI voice assistants.

“There may be a few glitches — I guess that’s the charm and the beauty of AI. Things may go wrong, but please laugh with us if they do,” said Cheil UK CEO Peter Zillig as he welcomed the guests with a mixture of nerves and anticipation about relinquishing control to Alexa. “But we’re really excited about it!”

And the results? Well, while pretty eclectic, the evening was thankfully more Nigella than Hal. Plus, a handpicked group of guests, including e-commerce and digital specialists from the likes of Pernod Ricard and Expedia, the post-dinner conversation also proved stimulating.

Before diving into the main meal, guests were invited to test their AI detection skills. We were treated to a series of artworks, musical excerpts and written compositions and determine which were created by humans and which by AI. Would we be able to root out the replicants in a Blade Runner-esque future? Possibly not. In the end it turns out all were created by artificial intelligence — so about half the pieces of work managed to fool the guests.

Smoked salmon and beetroot from the humans versus chocolate burritos from Chef IBM Watson…

And then for the main event. Alexa, in her wisdom, had chosen a Thai theme for the evening’s décor. Tropical flowers, placemats made from leaves — and a Cheil-produced VR experience that immersed diners in the riverways of Bangkok. So, we were geared up for an evening of Pad Thai and Laarb and Green Curry and sticky rice…

Alexa, however, had other ideas.

Asparagus and parmesan, for starters. Bangers, mash and broccoli — accompanied by Irn Bru, of course, for main. And a desert of raspberry pavlova. As far as dinner party hosts go, Alexa certainly isn’t predictable.

Is Alexa Scottish? She serves up Irn-Bru as a soft drink…

During the meal, Cheil UK’s Head of Strategic Services, David Coombs shared his insights about what the growth in AI voice assistants means for purchasing behaviour and, therefore, for brands. “One of the biggest challenges facing assistants today is how human they sound,” said David, who explained that helping brands understand their audio identity and tone of voice was an increasingly interesting space for the agency. He also explored how smart speakers and voice are becoming an increasingly prominent point of purchase, and how brand websites will need to be designed to make their information available to these systems. He also said that brands need to be judicious in their application of voice — considering where in the customer journey, voice moments might occur.

After dinner conversation covered the interaction between voice and screen, getting a leg up with Alexa and being made a default app by giving her ‘a ton of content’, the role of voice in smart cities, and the future of paid search in voice (inevitable). Given the intimate setting and the diverse group of interested guests, the debate was free-flowing — credit to Alexa for her relaxed Thai island-inspired ambience.

David was assisted by Alexa and Google Home, demonstrating the differences between the two. Alexa managed to drop some sick burns on Google, demonstrating how much easier Alexa is for third parties to programme for. But later on in the night, Google Home exacted her revenge by showing the tremendous power of Google’s access to information. When Expedia’s Andrew Cocker asked the speakers for flight times from Montreal to Seattle, Google replied 7 hr 30 mins while Alexa answered ‘about four hours’ — to the delight of the audience.

“Alexa’s right if you’ve got a private jet… Google’s right if you’re like the rest of us,” explained Andrew, who said that Google was able to draw on its wealth of information as a search company to compare real flight times — where Alexa was only able to draw a straight line between the destinations. But then, what’s a good dinner party without a little bit of drama?

All in all, both the human hosts at Cheil and the AI host Alexa put together a whimsical, Wonka-ish evening of delight and insight — and we reckon Alexa could give Pippa Middleton a run for her money when it comes to party planning.

Fancy replicating the evening yourself? Check out the full menu below…

Chef Watson Curated Canapes:

Chocolate burrito — Beef, cinnamon, dark cholate, apricot, vanilla, orange, edamame beans, edam cheese

Creole Shrimp and Lamb dumpling — Lamb, celery, tomato, okra, prawns, parsley

Human Curated Canapes:

Beetroot and smoked salmon

Parmesan shortbread with goats cheese and sun blushed tomato

Alexa curated dinner:

When asked, these were her favourite things to eat and drink:

Starters — Asparagus

Mains — Sausage and Mash

Dessert — Pavlova

Soft Drinks — Irn-Bru

Wine: Ramos Reservea 2015