Are some of the most successful tech experiences about cutting-edge technology or about powerful humanity? Or are they about experiencing the latter through the former?
Many of us have seen IBM’s recent Watson commercials featuring conversations between Watson and various humans such as songwriter Bob Dylan. The message is that Watson isn’t just a regular computer, it marks the dawn of cognitive computing - a kind of computing that will outsmart us humans.
According to IBM’s VP of branded content and global creative Ann Rubin, the commercials help consumers understand the new world of cognitive computing: "We're focusing on the advertising here, but this is really more than an advertising campaign," Rubin said. "It's a point of view that IBM has, and it's going across all of our marketing, our internal communications, how we engage sellers and our employees. It's really across everything that we do.”
I really like Ann Rubin’s quote and IBM’s marketing activities around Watson because they illustrate a really important lesson about what it takes to create a captivating technological experiences - a lesson that most technologists easily forget.
Strictly speaking, technology experiences (here: the experience of artificial intelligence) aren't so much about powerful machines but rather about creating powerful human-technology relationships, that is, modulating and enhancing what it means to be human through technology. In order for the machine to be perceived as intelligent, the humans who are supposed to interact with it need to change their way of looking at the world.
To many of us in marketing this sounds like a very strange idea. Isn’t the true purpose of Watson to solve human problems? Yes, of course it is. But if this was a given, why should IBM have to run expensive advertising campaigns to promote Watson in the above manner? Echoing Arthur C. Clarke’s famous contention that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, in order for Watson's magic to appear in the form of one or more thriving markets, a bit of cultural tweaking are probably necessary.
Children are actually much more used to thinking in this way than adults. When I was a kid, for example, my friend Frederik and I were huge fans of 2001’s HAL 9000. Somehow we couldn’t resist the urge to re-create some of the uncanny magic that we saw in HAL. And so we spent endless hours after school with our rudimentary Commodore Amiga computers, I/O boards, microphones, loudspeakers, and countless sound, light, motion, and pressure sensors to create an AI-like experience for our parents.
Quickly, we discovered that the real difficulty wasn’t so much in the technology. Of course getting the wiring and programming right really mattered. But the real challenge was our parents’ behavior. Much to our chagrin, they refused to behave in the manner they should in order for the experience of machine intelligence to manifest for them. If we didn’t know when and how they would enter our room and with what questions or concerns and for how long, our sensors wouldn’t be triggered, the intended consumer-technology relationship wouldn’t materialize, and the magic simply wouldn't happen.
To address this issue, we conducted probably the world’s first-ever ethnography of parental room entering and exiting behavior. For weeks, we would video record our parents while entering and exiting our rooms, analyze their language and gestures, and explore their mood and underlying goals. Soon we discovered that there was a complex science behind parental room entering and that, if we ever wanted to succeed in our endeavour to enthral them through our AI experience, we would not only have to tailor it to their world but also tailor their routines and behaviors a bit to what we could realistically deliver through our network of sensors and programming.
So in a second step, we began to carefully re-arrange desks, beds, lamps, carpets, and other objects and we put up signs and sensors in ways that would make our parents' paths more compatible with our computing capabilities. About a month or two later, we had finally established a constellation that worked: every time our parents entered the room they were able to have a one-minute conversation with a computer. Not really the most elaborate chat but enough to impress them - and the occasional guests.
Like us kids but only on a much larger scale, IBM's engineers and marketers understand AI not as a technology but as a social system. Unlike most tech entrepreneurs, they understand Watson as something that will significantly benefit banking, insurance, healthcare, and retail but only in the moment in which these industries will allow Watson to “outthink” them. And that doesn’t happen naturally but requires a fair bit of technological and social redesign. Watson needs to appear on Jeopardy and win, he needs to outsmart Bob Dylan on love and time, he needs to talk with doctors and cancer survivors about life and health. The more we learn how to approach and interact with Watson, the smarter he will become.