True Machine Learning, Not Smarter Programming: Q&A with Domenic Venuto, The Weather Channel

What takes something beyond smart programming and into the realms artificial intelligence (AI)? How is AI and cognitive computing changing the scope of digital advertising? Ahead of his keynote speech at The 614 Group’s Brand Safety Summit in London on 16 March, ExchangeWire speak with Domenic Venuto, general manager, consumer division, The Weather Company, about the direction of AI and the key considerations of cognitive computing as it becomes more engrained in daily lives.

ExchangeWire: When we talk about AI, we too often think of sci-fi films and YouTube videos of human-like robots. How much is our world today impacted by AI, without us even realising it?

Domenic Venuto: We often get confused between smarter computer programming and artificial intelligence. Technology is all around us; and is getting faster, cheaper, and ubiquitous. A lot of what we’re experiencing today isn’t actually artificial intelligence, like the stuff we see in the sci-fi movies. It’s just smarter computer programming, powered by more data. IBM and The Weather Channel think about it as a subset of the broader category of cognitive computing. There are several components that define it as unique and specific:

1. Understanding: Understanding information and creating context between things, such as: “Do I need an umbrella on Saturday?” There’s a lot behind that simple question: you need to know that rain is attached to weather and the umbrella prevents you from getting wet.

2. Learning: The improvement upon, and building the confidence, of having the right answer.

3. Reasoning: Comparing and trading off options against each other.

4. Interaction: Human-like interaction, where you understand intent and tone. We’re at the very beginnings of artificial intelligence. We’re seeing it pop up in small ways, but it’s certainly not ubiquitous. The fastest area of development in this space is the autonomous car – there are major advancements, but we’re still not ready to see benefits of that at scale.

When looking at digital advertising, how much of a role does AI play in the campaign process, from strategy and planning through to analysis?

We’re just starting to explore artificial intelligence, mental intelligence, and cognition in advertising. IBM launched Watson Ads last year, which is one of the first steps to creating a cognitive advertising product. If you take a step back, and look at the industry as a whole, where we’re seeing it is in the upfront processing of insights. Machine learning (which is one process of cognition) is being utilised to extract information on consumer behaviour. You’re starting to see it in point solutions, but not necessarily evenly throughout the digital landscape. We will quickly get there, and we’re driving in this space.

What are The Weather Company doing in the field of AI? What role do IBM Watson technology play, and what key brand safety concerns need to be considered?

Domenic Venuto, General Manager, Consumer Division, The Weather Company

We launched Watson ads in Q4 last year and we’re doing a ton in the space; IBM are deploying augmented intelligence and cognition for the enterprise. We are deploying Watson and artificial intelligence at the data layer, as we can extract other insights and glean learnings we otherwise wouldn’t see without it. At the consumer experience layer, we are using Watson to personalise and anticipate a consumer’s experience and anticipate advertising, or monetisation, opportunities. If we get it right, a brand can anticipate a consumer need before the consumer knows they have it. Tone of voice is critical with this. There’s the promise of AI creating individual experiences; and if it’s not tone-appropriate, or it misses the mark, what could be a delight turns into a disaster.

Last year, brands that were experimenting with bots saw limited benefits, as the experience was clunky. It felt like the user was being walked through a decision tree and it was smarter programming, as opposed to true artificial intelligence. Where Watson has the advantage is that it understands tone and intent. It’s a cognitive solution, not just smarter programming. With artificial intelligence you run the risk of not knowing how you arrived at a particular point. “Why did I bid £2.20 for this ad unit? Was it fraud or was it strategy-based?” It can get complicated with machine learning in the background. When engaging with consumers using AI, it’s about getting the brand and the tone right and providing the right answer at the right time. You don’t have the luxury of a page of blue links like Google. It’s voice-activated and consumers expect the right answer the first time around, or they’ll move on. The axioms of ‘buyer beware’ are always applicable. You must make sure you’re asking questions and rigorously testing across a wide range of use cases. It must be true machine learning – augmented intelligence and not just smarter programming that you’re paying a premium for.

Are the correct safeguards in place?

The safeguards are still being refined. It’s early days and it can be a bit like the wild west sometimes with smaller players in the market. Again, the ‘buyer beware’ axioms are in place. The big safeguards being worked through are the ethics of cognitive computing – it opens up a whole set of questions that need to be addressed. IBM have put together an internal ethics council to deal with that. Those safeguards need to be in place; and we will get there. It taps into the issues of privacy and data protection. We work under the assumption that if we are providing true value to a consumer, then there’s an exchange of value – the consumer is willing to part with personal information if it can make his/her life easier. That ladders up into our quest to instil confidence, and to help people and organisations make better decisions. Propel the world – that’s our quest.

Where can AI take digital advertising?

It’s very exciting. AI presents a massive growth opportunity and, fundamentally, we’re applying cognitive computing to create meaningful connections between brands and consumers. The vision and the goal is that consumers should decide to allow a brand to serve them, but to make that decision once: “I trust this brand; and I want to interact with it across all my devices throughout the day, without needing to reauthenticate.” It’s about seamless connectivity and anticipating a need before it even becomes one. We are super excited about this. We are pioneers in this space and are gaining lots of learning from the visions we’re driving towards with cognitive computing and how it can really build fantastic experiences for consumers, as the connective tissue between those experiences.

See Venuto, along with a wealth of expert industry speakers at The 614 Group’s Brand Safety Summit in London, UK on 16 March.

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