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AI Debate: Marc Curtis' Nuance of the Debate

Thursday May 24, 2018 at 11:36am

As an ex-agency person, I’ve contributed too and even moderated a fair few panel discussions in my time. But this Monday was my first experience of a formal debate, and in the Houses of Parliament no less!  

The subject of the debate, which was hosted by the Debating Group and sponsored by the IPM was: AI driven marketing threatens consumer choice. With Rob Sellers (MD of Grey Shopper Marketing), we proposed the motion.  

To read a summary of the debate please click here
To read the full debate transcript, click here.

I’ll put you out of your misery now - we lost the debate. The final vote in the room was 35 against the motion and only 16 for. Here’s some of the reasons why I think we lost.  

AI, especially within the context of marketing, has become emblematic of technological advance.  

Marketing is besieged. Consumers are quite rightly becoming more and more aware of the implications of the harvesting of their data for marketing (and other) purposes.  

Marketers and brands are in a constant arms race with consumers, legislation and each other to find an edge that will enable them to get their products into the public consciousness.  

Consequently it’s become heresy in marketing circles to take an anti-technological advance position. And rightly so - marketing and advertising technology is enabling us to be far more efficient and relevant with our budgets whilst providing measurement opportunities that we could only dreamed of 10 years ago.  

AI is definitely part of this story, and as such I have absolutely no problem with the technology.

The debate, however, was not about whether technology has a place in marketing or if we should return to some kind of halcyon pre-digital era populated by smoking alcoholics like Don Draper.  

The debate was about whether AI - specifically algorithmic curation and recommendation threatens consumer choice, and I maintain that it does.  

As consumers we can’t expect [online] retailers to use their algorithms to reduce our cognitive load on choices around basic commodities like batteries and razor blades and yet leave us to make open choices around more fundamental decisions like whether we buy from Amazon own range or an independent or local supplier.  

We focused on choice, but the chamber voted on whether technology was good or bad

In retrospect we should have been clearer about the definitions. We do need help to access the overwhelming amount of content and product that exists online. New technology like voice interfaces and augmented reality are creating far more natural and democratic ways of interacting with content.  

AI plays an important role in making sense of the enormous amount of data being produced by individuals and the built environment. Without AI, the future of Smart Cities, healthcare, clean safe transportation, entertainment and so much more would simply not happen.  

We should have focused on drawing a distinction between the dangers of sliding silently into a future where our ability to make decisions for ourselves has become so stunted that we don’t even realise it’s gone, and all the amazing benefits that artificial intelligence can offer.  

We need to equip consumers with the desire to question, the desire to look beyond what is served up via an algorithm.  

Give a man a car, and he’ll walk less.
Give a man a decision-ing engine and he’ll think less. 

It’s hard to recover a skill that you didn’t even know you lost.  


Marc Curtis, Ideation Manager, Lyreco Group

Marc has spent the last 18 years working in the digital technology and marketing space, first as a developer and, for the last 5 years, running an innovation lab at a top London agency. Marc recently moved client side where he now leads the charge on disruptive innovation fro Lyreco, a global office solutions company. By contrast Marc's side hustle is LivingUnplugged.com - a site dedicated to helping people reconnect with analogue pursuits like baking bread, using your hands and enjoying time away from technology.

» Categories: General, Opinion