Six spooky AI apparitions to send shivers down marketers’ spines

If you’re worried about computers taking over marketing creativity – then this post might just give you nightmares

October 31, 2016


Are you ready for the night of the year when dark forces are unleashed, strangely non-human creatures roam the streets, and all of your most dreaded nightmares seem to stalk behind you? If you’re a marketer reassuring yourself that creative roles like ours surely can’t be taken over by computers – then that night could be tonight. Forget Halloween – the real scary stuff is how quickly Artificial Intelligence and machine learning have advanced to do the things we once thought you needed a human heart, mind and soul for.

Here are six recent AI applications that seem certain to send shivers down the spine of many working in the creative industries. They’re a warning from the other side – that human creativity can be disrupted by technology just like pretty much anything else can:

Cold-blooded chart hits
Music seems uniquely human – the ability to fuse lyrics with tone and melody, layer the different elements of a composition, trigger an emotional reaction amongst those listening… surely that requires a human ear, a human instinct, a human heart? Songs can’t simply be churned out by an algorithm, can they?

Anyone familiar with the output of former X Factor contestants probably knows the answer to this one already. Earlier this month, producer Alex Da Kid released a debut EP with a difference. Its music and lyrics were written by a computer – and not just any computer. IBM’s famous, gameshow-playing supercomputer, Watson used a musical algorithm to analyse thousands of songs from the past five years, examining the emotional meaning of key signatures, structure and chord progressions. It then churned out suggested compositions to match different moods – but it didn’t stop at the tune. Watson also analysed headlines, news coverage and social media sentiment to figure out what its audience really cared about – and talk to their concerns. The results are scarily impressive. It’s Not Easy, the debut single, isn’t quite Bowie at his best – but it would feel perfectly at home on plenty of people’s playlists.

Sinister short films
Creating music using AI might be scary for songwriters – but computers suggesting what people should think when listening to it could be scarier still. For the release of his new album The Ship, legendary producer Brian Eno worked with Dentsu Labs of Tokyo to create a ‘generative film’ that attempts exactly that. The film used AI to scour photography archives and suggest different combinations of images to accompany the album’s title track. It’s moody, sombre, reflective, suggesting all kinds of cultural associations and historical references.

Normally, when you listen to music, these are kind of ideas that pop magically into your mind – they reflect your particular identity and experience; they feel like a big part of who you are. Eno’s project raises the spectre of our internal train of thought being created and edited for us by machines. Depending on how you look at it, that could either be a brave new world for marketers – or the beginning of the end of our industry as we know it.

Neck-biting novellas
Four-minute pop songs and videos are one thing – but some forms of creativity require far more sustained concentration and linking of different ideas. You’d think a computer would struggle to write a novel – and certainly struggle to make it any good.

Not in the judgment of judges for the Hoshi Shinichi Literary Award in Japan. Out of 1,450 submissions for the prize, 11 were written at least party by AI programmes – and one of these, appropriately titled The day a Computer Writes a Novel, actually made the shortlist. In a blind reading (where judges were unaware of who or what had written the work) it came out ahead of several stories penned by human novelists.

Marrow-freezing musicals
Shows in London’s West End frequently get labeled as ‘formulaic’. It’s a description that is taking on added meaning, after Beyond the Fence, a story about forbidden love and nuclear disarmament protestors in the 1980s, opened earlier this year. What’s particularly interesting, or disturbing, about this musical is the fact that every stage of the creative process was automated to some degree. Cambridge University’s Machine Learning Group used big data to analyse the elements that historical hit musicals have in common, and come up with the key themes the show needed to include. Researchers at Goldsmiths University of London then used another algorithm to generate a range of potential settings and characters; yet another algorithm took care of the plot; finally, a system dubbed ‘Android Lloyd Webber’ composed the music.

All of this left only one area where human creativity was wholly in charge of things. It seems no computer was yet capable of writing the dialogue and lyrics for the musical. Mind you, it’s surely only a matter of time before a novel-writing Japanese algorithm steps in to fill that gap.

Soul-sucking art
The finance brand ING walked away from Cannes with a Grand Prix Lion this year, thanks to an AI algorithm that analysed the paintings of Rembrandt and then taught itself to paint a portrait in the style of the Old Master himself. It was good enough to fool plenty of art lovers and cause a media sensation – and it’s far from the only example of computers creating art. Google has an algorithm that supposedly replicates the actions of a human brain dreaming, in order to produce original art – and then sells it for tens of thousands of dollars a pop.

Reporting from the other side
It seems shocking that computers can compete with human artists when it comes to paintings, music and literature – but there are some types of content that have been churned out by AI for years, often without their readers realising. Thomson Reuters and Yahoo are among the companies using algorithms to produce reports on the stock market, last night’s TV and fantasy football teams’ performances, among other things. If you think the brave new world of creativity is scary for marketers – spare a thought for the poor journalists.

Try not to have nightmares
I’m sorry if this post genuinely scares you – if I’m honest, I find it fairly frightening too. But there’s something about the growing number of AI applications taking on traditionally human creative tasks that reassures me as well.

In all cases, the AI of an algorithm is being driven by a bold, creative set of humans with a very clear and original idea of what they want to achieve. The computer takes on the role of a painter in one of Andy Warhol’s factories – it’s spookily capable of the creative job it’s given, but it still needs a deeply original creative mind to come up with that task in the first place. The most successful creative algorithms all had a very specific role in this way. Human creatives at JWT came up with the whole Next Rembrandt idea for ING; Alex Da Kid used the musical suggestions of his algorithm for inspiration – but he still chose which of these suggestions to combine together. In contrast, Beyond the Fence, the musical conceived by computers as well as written by them had some pretty scathing reviews – and its run is already over.

In any horror movie, it’s usually the smug, complacent character who insists nothing scary is happening that comes to a sticky end first. The advances in AI over the last 12 months provide a warning that there’s no area of creativity that humans necessarily have to themselves. However, the more we’re aware of what computers are capable of, the more we can focus our efforts on adding value and originality in ways only human ingenuity can.