By Steven Van Belleghem

When digital becomes human, reviewed

Fuel 2017 – the technology and innovation conference hosted by Belgian media company Medialaan – took place recently. Fuel is a fantastically-run event, and it was great to hear the thoughts of some fascinating speakers.

One of the discussions was around how AI is changing customer experience, and I moderated a panel made up of Cliff Fluet, Partner and in-house counsel in the music and broadcast industry at UK law firm Lewis Silkin; Nadira Azermai, founder and CEO of Belgium-based company ScriptBook, providing Artificial Intelligence screenplay analysis and box office forecasts; and Filip Maertens, Belgium-based founder of Securax, a cyber-security consulting company, and Sentiance, a context-aware profiling company.

For a long view of the changes we can expect from the AI revolution, it is well worth considering these takeaway points that emerged from the discussion.

Are we already in the AI era?
We’re entering a new phase of automation and Artificial Intelligence, which is a hugely exciting time for marketing and customer experience. AI will bring about a vastly improved consumer journey and in some cases is already providing faster than real-time customer service. For example, if your flight is cancelled when you’re already en route to the airport, some airlines can now provide an automatic rebooking service for the next available flight, before you even know about the cancellation: performing a service that you would otherwise have had to sort out for yourself, with no extra hassle for you.

Similarly, hyper-personalised offerings such as Amazon Go – where you can just walk into a store and take what you want, with no need for waiting in line or stopping for payment – are already being introduced; the AI takeover is happening now! But what is the reality and what is just hype?

How soon should we start adopting AI?
All the experts on our panel agreed that AI is already here among us; it’s not something we can defer to a far-off date. AI services such as Amazon Echo will transform how we all interact with media; by understanding our needs ahead of the game, it will change our lives. When we communicate directly with a company through AI systems such as this, and receive a directly personalised service in return, we will feel that we are being really taken care of as individuals. So why wait to engage?

Amazon Echo, which is Amazon’s highest selling digital product, should be seen not as a single product in itself but as a platform that businesses can engage with in order to deliver their own services. Companies hoping to emerge at the forefront in an AI environment must gear up now to the new phase of AI, and must put their digital strategy first.

How should we put this intangible development to work?
AI is still largely invisible to consumers, so how should companies make use of it? The key is data. Most companies already possess reams of data that is not being used. Analysed by AI, this data can be used to develop products and services based on patterns and trends of customer behaviour and preferences. Companies need to base their new product decisions on AI analysis, not simply by brainstorming without the context of large volumes of buyers’ opinions. A business can apply AI to its own unique problems; analysis of unstructured data is a powerful tool, and it is not generally a human strength.

Will AI replace creativity?
The real question is ‘will AI replace human endeavour?’, and the question applies across all industries. Some top accountancy firms already have AI Bots that can do everything a 5-year-qualified accountant can do, and the technology is advancing quickly. Many industries are in denial about this, but it is clear that automation will take over in ways we can’t even imagine.

For example, the Japanese advertising agency McCann last year used AI to build a script for a fresh mint commercial, while a human creative produced a rival script. Expecting a wide differential, viewers were surprised when both commercials turned out to be good!

‘Creativity’ doesn’t have to relate only to story-telling and visuals; it can more simply be defined as a new or non-mainstream way of solving a problem. So creativity will not disappear – but it might not be solely achieved by humans.

Will AI replace people?

Concerns that humans will be phased out of industry are legitimate. For example Uber, despite all its current ‘employees’, is more accurately defined as a data collector than an employer. Its future as a company probably won’t involve drivers. Similarly, the number 1 job in the US is ‘truck driver’, a role that will obviously be one of the first in the firing line for replacement by AI.

But for businesses that are small or failing in the current environment where big players take all, AI could provide a real advantage over the competition. These companies need to engage with AI now, and fast, to make the best of this advantage. At this point, people are still the drivers of change. But we need to start thinking: what is our future context as humans? We can use AI to start predicting the answers…

Will AI bots make all our decisions for us?

Consumer decisions are increasingly based on algorithms, so buying habits are likely to become more rational and easy to predict. In this sense, the system will take the load of decision-making from us. But this is also already happening: a large proportion of the decisions we make are already based on the invisible workings of AI in the background of our social media networks and the online services we use.

Companies are now investing billions of pounds in ‘getting to know us’ better. Just like intelligence organisations, they want to know everything about us. What they are creating with this data are ‘Weapons of Mass Influence’ – the ability to analyse our past decisions and feed back to us content specifically designed to influence our future ones. The shock results of the recent US election and the UK/EU referendum could be attributed to this new form of decision-influencing.

Is AI ethical?

With the fast and widespread development of AI, we need to start asking ethical questions. Do we want to put limits on AI’s reach? How comfortable are we with AI surveillance and invisible AI involvement in our everyday thoughts and feelings? Amazon Echo stands now in a traditionally human preserve: as a key witness in a US murder trial. The ethics are complex and, as yet, untested.

Prof. Steven Van Belleghem is an expert in customer focus in the digital world. He’s the author of the award-winning book When Digital Becomes Human, published by Kogan Page, priced £19.99. Follow him on Twitter @StevenVBe, subscribe to his videos at or visit

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