How marketers and brand managers can prepare for the cognitive era

I never realized how much I hate checking my car’s blind spot, until I never had to again.

Something as simple as sensor-aided blind-spot detection has eliminated what was once an everyday part of driving. Changing lanes? Get ready to twist your neck against the headrest and make sure a drivers-ed dropout isn’t cruising next to your quarter panel.

Now there’s a blinking yellow light for that. The next generation of drivers will be bewildered when they hear we actually had to turn our heads. The generation after that will wonder why humans ever drove themselves when machines are so damn good at it.

I may not yet rely on a computer to drive me from Point A to Point B, but I am relying on it to inform what could be a life or death decision. All that stands between me sideswiping into a 3,000 pound vehicle traveling 75 miles per hour is a computer sensor that tells me whether it’s safe to change lanes. For better or worse, I trust the machine.

Sensors are all around us, not just in our cars but in our homes, our phones, our airplanes, our elevators, our workplaces and on our wrists; they are ubiquitous. They protect us, warn us and, in some cases, even inspire us to live better, healthier lives.

But what if our car fails to let us know there is someone in our blind spot? What if we trust too much? What if Tesla’s autopilot feature is found at fault in a fatal May Model S accident on a divided Florida highway?

We must learn when to trust the machines (or not) and prepare for the cognitive era.

What ifs aside, one thing is certain — the cognitive era is here and machines will be increasingly trusted to not only collect and analyze data, but help us make our decisions (most of which will be far more complicated than whether a car is in our blind spot or not).

IBM’s CEO Ginni Rometty predicts that in only five years, every crucial business decision will be informed by cognitive systems that understand, learn and augment our decision making.

As marketers, the decisions cognitive computers make for us may not be life or death, but they will have profound affects on how our consumer audience discovers products and makes purchasing decisions. We must learn when to trust the machines (or not) and prepare for the cognitive era.

The internet of commerce is here

I may come off as a geeky futurist when I talk about the coming cognitive era, but it’s already happening. When is the last time you made a significant purchase without a Google search? The machine algorithms of search engines and e-commerce platforms are gateways with significant influence upon on our buying decisions.

I call the increasing role internet-connected machines play in our decision-making process the internet of commerce. If machines are increasingly doing the decision making for us, what is the next battleground for brands?

If you always have Pepsi at home, and your smart refrigerator knows this and always reorders it from the cheapest online vendor, how does Coca-Cola stand a chance at earning your business?

How will people ever be forced to discover new brands, new possibilities, new things?

The answer is simply: better brand experiences. No matter how sci-fi our world gets, digital, analog and physical experiences will reign supreme.

More than 3 in 4 “millennials,” now entering the prime of their purchasing power, would choose to spend money on an experience over buying something desirable. While the blanket term “millennial” is far too generalizing for an age range with so much diversity, the fact remains that younger generations value experiences over collecting things. They have grown up in a world where everything is increasingly at their fingertips. First, their entire music collection lived on their iPod, now their entire world is on-demand via their iPhone.

But while “millennials” may be the earliest adopters of the on-demand economy, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by positing that those of all ages are joining them. No matter our demographic, we watch what we want, when we want; we eat what we want, when we want — our lives operate on demand.

It is our challenge to discover and utilize the limitless possibilities of advancing technology.

The cognitive era will put the on-demand experience into overdrive. When machines can use deep learning and natural language processing to predict your purchasing intent, and deliver the goods or service without friction, experiences that create an emotional connection will keep brands from becoming indistinguishable on-demand commodities in the eyes of consumers.

The on-demand arms race of the cognitive era will not be won by the brand that satisfies their consumer with one tap, but the experience-connected brand for which consumers are willing to tap twice.

The machines aren’t taking over, but they are here to stay

As our world becomes smarter, we must first remember a cognitive computer is not a conscious computer (yet).

Despite all the advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, these neural networks lack intuition. Deep learning isn’t skynet, it’s just math.

“Most important, the process is narrowly circumscribed, providing the machine with a very limited degree of autonomy; unlike people, AI does not beget autonomy” — Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and a computer scientist at the University of Washington.

So even as the internet, our homes, cars, devices, media and lives become increasingly powered by artificial intelligence, human control will remain. But just as important as maintaining control, is maintaining the human condition.

No matter how predictive the future Internet of Things becomes, it is not possible to replace the human spirit. We can’t computerize the delicate chemical balance of our neurology that leads us to pursue, and question, the possibilities machines can unlock as “allies” in the 21st century.

As marketers and creative technologists, it is our challenge to discover and utilize the limitless possibilities of advancing technology, but we must create media, products and experiences rooted in the human condition.

As the technology in our cars evolves from assistive to autonomous, and brand bots redefine the “human touch” of customer experience, it will become increasingly difficult to convince consumers to eschew instant autonomous gratification for the messiness of truly human experiences.

Eliminate friction, but not at the expense of what makes your brand interesting or special. After all, even in an “Uber-fied” micro-moment world, our most successful technology is rooted in what makes us human. We long to connect, Facebook. We long to understand, Google.

Trust in the machines, but inject our humanity into the experiences they create.