Transformation is underway across many of the services we use every day, such as commerce, personal finance, and transportation, with brands redefining the way we interact with their products and services. These changes are being driven by a desire to deliver us enhanced experiences in a 'digital first' way, capitalising on opportunities presented by emerging technologies.
One technology attracting attention is artificial intelligence. AI and its current early form, machine learning - computers that can "think" for themselves and tailor their actions and responses to situations based on experience - is going to play an increasingly significant role in our everyday lives. From businesses such as Thought Machine, which aims to improve the way we manage our personal finances, to Ginger.io that aims to help people in the US alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression, there has been significant investment in the field in recent years, with both established technology companies and startups experimenting with diverse applications to improve customer experience.
How will this affect our control of, and engagement with, everyday experiences? We are not going to witness a Terminator-style rise of the machines any time soon. Human elements will retain an important role in shaping our interactions with brands; AI will simply enable these interactions to become more valuable to both sides.
One of the greatest attractions of AI lies in its potential to enhance consumers' lives through the delivery of more personalised, accurate, and efficient services. The most effective use of data and machine learning today is the generation of recommendations based on previous engagement. If you've ever bought something from Amazon's "customers who bought this item also bought" list, enjoyed a new series from your Netflix "for you" carousel, or got hooked on a new song that popped up in your Spotify Discovery Weekly playlist, you've felt the power of early-stage machine learning.
The recent launches of Amazon Echo and Google Home continue a recent trend that points the way for a future of consumer experience powered by learning technology. Alexa from Amazon and Google's Assistant joining Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana as 'characters' that act as intermediaries between us and the services we want to use. When these conversational interfaces work well, they can provide invaluable updates on traffic conditions ahead of time, answer questions about a broad range of subjects, control heating, order food, and pay bills. But when they fail and desired outcomes aren't achieved, these services can become extremely frustrating.
These interactions raise questions about our boundaries of comfort and acceptability. When will we accept interactions with artificial characters rather than real humans? What experiences should brands - for the time being, at least - keep under human control? In service industries, where consumers have provided personal data and are often looking for specific information or to perform simple, transactional tasks, AI offers clear benefits. These tasks don't require sophisticated conversation or emotional connection, and can therefore be handled by machines that perform information retrieval consistently quicker and more accurately than humans.
A distinction must be drawn when considering whether to bake AI into customer experience: is the experience characterized by function and utility, or by emotion? This gets to the core of an apparent paradox in consumer adoption of, and comfort using, machine-powered services: why do so many people who happily ask Siri to fetch a football result, or to write and send a message, still insist on making in-person appointments with an Apple Genius?
We all have valued personal relationships that add to our everyday experiences - whether with a dentist, yoga teacher, barista, or restaurant owner. Whatever the role of AI in the future, the human touch will remain a vital part of these interactions. We also have certain expectations of brands - because of the industry, the nature of the service, or the image that they cultivate. Technology - as it always has done - can help brands deliver on these expectations and delight us. However, variation in our personalities and preferences means that a level of human interaction is still required to deliver a satisfying experience.
Take personal shopping. As much as services make use of machine learning to make and improve recommendations, the most successful propositions still depend on human stylists engaging with customers, whether to understand their likes and dislikes, their hang-ups, or their budget (and what they are willing to stretch it for). Human relationships remain vital. An algorithm is, after all, only as good as the data fed into it - and sometimes it takes a human to best understand a person.
Whether a brand is recommending our next weekend-long streaming binge, selling us a mortgage to buy our first home, helping us revamp our wardrobe, or planning our next holiday, creating a positive experience depends on a its ability to inspire our trust and confidence. With AI here to stay, and set to push customer experience further forward, careful navigation of ever-controversial topics such as privacy, the use of data, and the difficult ethical decisions that machines will have to make - such as whether a driverless car should drive its passenger into a wall or crash into a cyclist - will be critical.
Ultimately, the greatest opportunity currently presented to brands by AI is the ability to communicate conversationally with customers and deliver us a personalised experience, giving them more time to deliver elements of the customer experience that add real value. AI is moving at startling speed, and "the machines" - led by the likes of IBM Watson, which recently produced a convincing movie trailer, and Luka, an AI-powered chatbot company that can build digital representations of dead people based on their online footprint - are rapidly approaching the point of being able to understand and replicate human emotion to empathise with us.
There are always going to be some occasions when we would rather interact with a human, but the future is bright for AI-powered customer experience - and businesses that have embraced its capabilities at this early stage will be best placed to capitalise on future advances.