Yesterday Edinburgh University launched a new “Centre for Robotics” as part of its flagship Informatics school.
I was tempted along to the inaugural lecture simply because of my love of all things tech. However I also have a gut instinct that robotics will play a role in marketing at some point in the future.
My flawed theory went: anything that can be created automatically can potentially be supplied for free – when something can be supplied for free it becomes part of a marketer’s arsenal – it allows us to offer great experiences to prospective customers. Would robotics become an arm of the already overly stretched verbiage of content marketing? It turned out that this is unlikely, but I did learn that the tech that will allow automated personalisation of marketing is about to develop in interesting directions.
In terms of my content marketing hypothesis, of course I forgot the one key element of “free”. The components need to be free too. Designs can be supplied for free and then a prospective customer can use a 3D printer to make them useful. That’s why giving away designs is something that marketers are thinking about. Giving away all the “ink” required for 3D printing though is of course cost prohibitive (unless of course you can sustain a huge cost of customer acquisition). We therefore aren’t suddenly going to be able to use robots to create lots of freebies.
So the hypothesis may have been quickly destroyed but I did have a very interesting chat over breakfast with someone from the department who did steer me in the right direction of what robots might do for marketing. Here are a few things I learned.
The cost of robotics is dropping dramatically
Robotics is becoming affordable for small manufacturing companies. That means that the so called long tail of things is becoming more of a reality. It’s increasingly viable to create products for smaller markets. That’s very interesting for reaching new markets.
We are a long way from mass ownership
The pace of cost reductions of robotics is somewhere between computing and car manufacture. There’s a lot of hardware in robots. It doesn’t seem like we will suddenly all have a smart robot in the same way we all have a smartphone, at least not for a long time. This obviously restricts marketing opportunities.
Functionality is limited
Robots that interact with humans are still at a very early stage. Daimler is using them to do some previously manual production line work inside the car. This physically onerous work is now done by a robot in co-operation with an operator outside the car. Clearly that’s a fairly limited set of interactions that is a gulf away from the nirvana of one to one marketing.
Robots’ ability to learn new tasks is also improving but remains limited. The idea of rapidly deploying robots on new tasks by “training” them is becoming a reality. However, providing the sort of human-like interactions that would allow marketers to create experiences certainly doesn’t sound like it is going to become part of my job description any day soon.
There is great news though for manufacturing in the developed world. The cost differentiation between here and China is likely to drop as robotics have increasing roles in production lines.
What robots are also likely to do in the shorter term is play a role in individual product customisation. Expect to see more of make-your-own-Nike trainers type initiatives. Marketers are going to have to increase their ability to learn from customers to service that.
Autonomous Systems that See
The main event turned out to be more about Artificial Intelligence (AI) than what I’d see as robotics. AI is obviously key for robotics to become useful (it’s the sensing part). It was in this lecture that I found much more relevance for the marketer. “Autonomous Systems that See” by Prof Andrew Blake of Cambridge University succeeded in exciting me about just how advanced technology is becoming (and scared me with how it is controlled by so few).
Speech analysis (as typified by Siri, Cortana, and Google Now) is becoming a day to day part of life. Even if the dialogues feel pedestrian, the understanding is quite remarkable. Professor Blake highlighted an example of a robotic receptionist, demonstrating it’s ability to understand real people at a real reception desk in a real environment (i.e. not just one person). This highlighted the next stage in customer support. Clearly we are going to see much more autonomous phone support. That might sound like your idea of hell, but we can’t deny that it has the potential to make customer service highly scalable and ultimately affordable for any business which may now be limited in its potential due to the need for expensive mass but complex customer service.
Automatic translation will also bring new directions. Watch Microsoft’s demonstration of translating in a multi-lingual Skype conversation:
Cars are now coming with computer vision as standard. Automatic braking in the event of people jumping in front of cars is already being shipped. Mercedes are now prototyping systems predicting what pedestrians will do. Others are now using computer vision to provide lower tech autonomous cars (cheaper ones than Google I assume). SEOs will obviously recognise the increasing ability to understand images and the futility of of overly worrying about headers as text for SEO purposes. Input devices such as Microsoft’s Kinect (that’s the device that brings embarrassing Dad dancing into the living rooms of many homes) have increased the potential to understand much more than simple keyword or keyboard input.
Marketing and Autonomous Systems
The key marketing takeaway for me from this morning is the pace of technology in understanding our customers and prospects. It’s improving dramatically. Autonomous systems are about to mean that personalisation is going to become much much more sophisticated. Right now we can alter our websites to tailor offers to a known “individual” based on past behaviour or known location but even that is more than the majority are doing. Technology is going to allow us to get much more granular with that though. It will make a “special offer for our loyal Edinburgh customers” message look like child’s play. It will make untargeted messaging just plain rude.
So I learned a little about marketing but probably I learned more about what businesses need to be thinking about in general to be able to provide marketable products and services. I also hope that I’ve just witnessed the birth of what will become a world leading centre in a key area of technology here in Edinburgh. Certainly that is the stated aim. They’ve done it with machine learning/artificial intelligence so I have every faith the vision will be fulfilled. It’s exciting to have such capabilities on our doorstep.