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Artificial Intelligence

When Life Imitates Art

Will AI transcend the human experience?

By Alex Dombroski, CX Strategist and Principal Sales Consultant, Oracle

Spring 2018

Popular culture has long used our relationships with machines to grapple with such themes as how one defines life, self-awareness, and, ultimately, what makes up a soul. Perhaps the best reference point for these kinds of philosophical questions comes from Philip K. Dick, whose seminal science fiction work Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? serves largely as the basis for the cult-classic film Blade Runner. Published in 1968, Dick’s book offers a simple thesis: the difference between humans and androids is the ability to express love and compassion. Put another way, our differences come down to an ability to genuinely express empathy.

Alex Dombroski

Alex Dombroski, CX Strategist and Principal Sales Consultant, Oracle

The application of empathy is a fundamental driver of customer experience (CX) strategy. That’s why we work so hard as CX professionals to hone our ability to look at the business world from the outside in, train ourselves to walk a mile in our customers’ shoes, and use that perspective as a vehicle for outcomes that are beneficial to customers and businesses alike. But because empathy is a sliding scale, things can start to get a little blurry. After all, there are humans who can’t express empathy, and machines can learn to fake empathy through both basic programming and ongoing interpretation of the same verbal and nonverbal signals we use to discern meaning. Recent studies even suggest humans can express empathy for robots despite our rational brain telling us that machines don’t truly feel anything.

The conclusion? That humans are fallible. Machines, on the other hand, while also fallible, are still more reliable. And machines will eventually learn to appear more human than we can hope to be.

The application of empathy is a fundamental driver of customer experience strategy.”

That reality presents unprecedented opportunity for business. We have now reached a point where life is catching up to art: AI will possess a greater capacity to mimic empathy than humans’ capacity to express it genuinely, and it will do so more consistently. The brands that capitalize on these AI capabilities will gain competitive advantage, while organizations that ignore them put themselves at risk.

Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy, who achieved internet stardom with her TED Talk on body language and first impressions, suggests that when people first meet you, they quickly answer two questions. Can I respect this person? And, can I trust this person? I find trust to be the more interesting dimension, and analysts will tell you it’s the holy grail that brands seek. In fact, data suggests that trust is far more valuable than customer loyalty, because even loyal customers who don’t trust you won’t buy from you as often as they could.

We have now reached a point where life is catching up to art: AI will possess a greater capacity to mimic empathy than humans’ capacity to express it genuinely, and it will do so more consistently.”

According to Cuddy’s work, trust is a proxy for warmth, which represents that intangible “x-factor” of compatibility. Now, empathy, trust, and warmth are not terms typically associated with machines—but early adopters are already seeing that shift. Early iterations of the most innovative chatbots show a promising future—with, for example, wildly successful chatbots playing a prominent role in the promotion of the recently released Zootopia and Power Rangers movies. And in the B2B space, the Roof Ai bot is helping real estate marketers identify potential leads via the Facebook Messenger app, collect qualifying information, and then automatically route the lead to the appropriate sales rep based on answers provided by a buyer or seller.

While these examples certainly hint at exciting changes, this is not where the story ends. Imagine you’re a retail brand who wants to fully digitize the personal shopper experience. We’ve arrived at an age where an intimate understanding of shopping habits, preferences, past purchases, and available inventory will soon be analyzed and activated with empathy, consistency, and warmth. Serve that experience up on a mobile device, or on a kiosk in the dressing room, and arm it with millions of data points on what looks good on similar body types and particular hair or skin colors, and what accessories match. In the right vessel, that experience could quickly make the average detached store associate irrelevant. Add augmented and virtual reality into the equation, and you might find yourself questioning if a bricks-and-mortar presence is really that necessary.

The brands that capitalize on . . . AI capabilities will gain competitive advantage, while organizations that ignore it put themselves at risk.”

Now, stay in the personal shopper mindset but apply it to the enterprise sales paradigm in the high-tech space. What if a “salesbot” had intimate knowledge of its customers’ existing hardware footprint and IT architectures? Imagine that it could also make unbiased, almost omniscient recommendations to improve how each customer’s systems interoperate based on a customer’s stated need to achieve specific organizational goals. And what if that analysis happened on demand in real time? Add the Internet of Things to the mix, and that bot might even be able to predict what will break long before the customer knows that, calculate the ROI of change, and package it up in a business case that’s ready for executive consumption.

I’ll leave you with a thought from Oscar Wilde’s musings on art and life in his essay “The Decay of Lying,” in which he famously opined that life imitates art far more than art imitates life. In an era where we’re constantly startled by the potential that technology unlocks, it’s easy to understand that perspective. One of the core arguments Wilde makes is that “art rejects the burden of the human spirit,” that art is never representative of a time and place, and that it transcends what we know to be true.

Only time will tell if our relationships with machines will live up to that standard. But the future is closer than we think.

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Photography by Inti St. Clair, The Verbatim Agency