Brands embrace artificial intelligence in 2017

Much ink has been spilt expounding the revolutionary potential of developments such as near-field communication and the so-called “Internet of Things”. And in 2017, investment in artificial intelligence is predicted to triple. As we enter the new year, the idea of integrated AI, of the seamless marriage of the cyber and the physical, remains one of the dominant themes in advertising.

One exciting new development in this sector is the rise of voice-activated services such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, which were rolled out in the autumn of last year and should be a forceful presence in 2017. Google Home debuted in the US in November; Amazon Echo, after an earlier US launch, was rolled out in the UK in September and is gradually being introduced on the Continent.

Echo and Home are so-called "smart speakers", consoles designed for home and office use which offer sophisticated voice interaction. These all-purpose hubs are capable of music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, setting up meetings, streaming music and podcasts, and providing real time weather and traffic information. In the case of Echo, the device responds to the "wake word" Alexa, which tells it to start listening to a command.

What is interesting about these voice-activated devices is that they represent a big step in the direction of the "zero user interface", referring to the concept of a completely spontaneous, unmediated interaction with a digital device, a natural dialogue as if one were speaking to a fellow person. In a zero user interface, there are no forms or dialogue boxes to click through, no passwords to type in, not even a single button to press - there is literally no material "interface" determining the interaction between the user and the device, which now takes place through the airy medium of speech.

This raises fascinating questions about the future of advertising on such platforms. We know that Amazon Echo’s beta trial testers have included such brands as the Guardian, Sky Sports, and Just-Eat, and brand interest in voice-activated technology is generally very high. But where can ad interaction come from in a zero user interface? There is no screen to look at on which to display banner ads, no forced ad breaks of the kind given to non-premium Spotify users. Instead, Echo’s Alexa Skills feature allows brands to develop bespoke interaction events with users - "skills" which Echo can learn to integrate into its AI. Learning the Uber skill, for example, adds a new functionality where users can ask their Echo to "ask Uber to request a ride".

The potential here for creative, spontaneous advertising, seamlessly integrated into the skills which Echo can learn, is almost endless. Brands and ad agencies have the opportunity to forge a new kind of customer engagement characterised not by passive receptiveness but by active dialogue from both sides. "Conversation" isn’t just a marketing buzzword anymore: it is literally possible for a conversation to be held between brand and consumer thanks to sophisticated voice-activated technology.