The Joy of AI

I f our collective perception of artificial intelligence was a feeling, it might best be described as chilling. If it had a face, it would be mean. The prevailing vision of our future under (always under) AI is, if not quite “boot stamping on human face forever,” well, it’s not exactly utopian.

In the wider world, AI is associated with brutal efficiency, the extinction of jobs, and the replacement of humans. In the marketing and retail worlds, it’s most commonly seen as an impersonal voice, another nonhuman layer between company and customer. At worst, it’s death itself for brands.

Our lack of optimism is perfectly reasonable, considering even our most confident technology purveyors speak of AI as a “demon” posing an existential threat to humanity. We tend to both confine AI to the quotidian — to matters of efficiency, practicality, optimization, automation — and to endow it with terrifying powers that it doesn’t (yet) have.

It’s true that we’ve only seen the beginning of the impact AI will have on our lives, but as we extrapolate, we shouldn’t skip over the part where we — people — can steer its development, and we shouldn’t miss the human side of its potential.

In marketing, this means pushing beyond retargeted ads and smart emailers to create experiences that interact, learn from, and provide value to customers in real time.

In retail, it means building AI interfaces — from robots to chatbots to associate tools — to be friendly AND functional, supporting and entertaining employee and customer alike.

And in industries where machine learning can assume business responsibilities — from product design to inventory scanning — it means approaching AI as an assistant and collaborator, rather than as a total replacement for human reason and creativity.

By welcoming, rather than fearing, the introduction of AI into our stores, digital platforms, and warehouses, we reap the benefits of optimization while gaining a new tool for building relationships.

When the powers of technology are combined with, and guided by, humanity and empathy, and when AI systems are designed with emotional intelligence and creativity, we can create better and — dare we say, more joyful — experiences.

Illustration by Luke Ramsey.

Frontiers is a forum for the engineers, designers, strategists, and producers at W+K Lodge to consider how the world is changing through the lens of emerging tech — and how brands can evolve to keep up. In our first frontier, Retail, we explore what it means to combine brand creativity and technology in brick-and-mortar and e-commerce.