But this is just the start. Last month MediaGamma won a grant from the UK government’s ‘innovation agency’ to develop more advanced AI that can generate text and images for targeted ads. This would effectively involve splicing together something like Alibaba’s copywriter with MediaGamma’s current user-analysis tech. Instead of using your online activity to decide which existing ad you should see, that information could soon be used to generate a bespoke ad on the fly. “We could have a banner ad specifically tailored to a person’s tastes,” says Wang.
Or in Alibaba's hands, such a system could generate a bespoke item description, designed to appeal to your individual preferences, based on what it knows about your purchasing habits. This would be a direct pitch to the long-tail that Riedl imagines.
These AI systems are getting smarter but are they getting more creative? Here’s a famous six-word story by Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” It’s ad copy, similar to the descriptions churned out by Alibaba’s AI. But the emotional resonance of Hemingway’s words comes from his deep understanding of a human life that machines do not have. Even if they produced those words, we would not react to them in the same way.
At least not yet. Riedl is interested in giving AI a form of narrative intelligence, the ability to construct and understand stories more like people do. One of his experimental systems, called Shezarade, generates short narratives based on crowd-sourced information about common human activities, such as a trip to the cinema. Here’s an extract of one such story:
With sweaty palms and heart racing, John drove to Sally’s house for their first date. Sally, her pretty white dress flowing in the wind, carefully entered John’s car. John and Sally drove to the movie theatre. John and Sally parked the car in the parking lot. Wanting to feel prepared, John had already bought tickets to the movie in advance. A pale-faced usher stood before the door; John showed the tickets and the couple entered. Sally was thirsty so John hurried to buy drinks before the movie started. John and Sally found two good seats near the back. John sat down and raised the arm rest so that he and Sally could snuggle. John paid more attention to Sally while the movie rolled and nervously sipped his drink. Finally working up the courage to do so, John extended his arm to embrace Sally. He was relieved and ecstatic to feel her move closer to him in response. Sally stood up to use the restroom during the movie, smiling coyly at John before that exit.
It’s not quite Hemingway but narrative generation is a growing area of AI. For Riedl, narrative intelligence will help AIs understand the world more like we do – we often tell stories to make sense of things. Such understanding could make AIs that we interact with, such as Siri, appear less alien.
As well as telling stories and becoming better salespeople, more creative AIs could also be used to generate customised campaign emails or social media posts for political candidates. We are also seeing the first AI copywriters generating short news bulletins. China’s Xinhua news agency recently announced it would begin using software to write some of its newswire reports. This has raised concerns, since Xinhua is viewed by many to be a propaganda machine for the Chinese government. If you have hundreds of bots pushing out a particular version of a narrative it could be hard to counter and could have big implications for news bias.
Yet this is the direction we’re heading. We’re seeing more and more businesses, political campaigns and consulting firms starting to use AI to help with their communications. We should try to spot it when we can. But that’s easier said than done. We may find we are aware of these machine-generated messages about as much as are of the online ad auctions running every time a website opens. “Nobody notices,” says Wang.
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