Ben Kay on AI and creativity

This month, our advertising correspondent reflects on how AI may infiltrate the creative department, and why, instead of fearing it, we should see it as a spur to reinvent the industry

Last week I read that Burger King had created some ads that were apparently written by a ‘deep learning algorithm’. Visually they consisted of the usual food-porn ingredients shots, but the voiceover made such quirky suggestions as, “Gender reveal bad. Tender reveal young. It is a boy bird with crispy chicken tenders from Burger Thing”, and “The Whopper lives in a bun mansion just like you. Order yourself today… Have it Uruguay.”

Let’s just park the skeptical side of me that suspects these might not have been written by an algorithm. Or if they were, they were clearly chosen, and perhaps polished, by a human being. Instead, let’s take this opportunity to consider the extent to which creative advertising might be affected by artificial intelligence, and what you can do about it.

We can all laugh at the AI’s inept attempts at copywriting. But is that ineptitude realistic? Here we are in 2018, with computers that have long since been able to beat Grand Masters at chess, write classical music and even paint a decent picture. If a ‘deep learning algorithm’ can’t string a basic sentence together, someone’s having us on.

In Yuval Noah Harari’s new book, 21 lessons for the 21st Century, he explores the ways in biotechnology will allow computers to be far more competent than that. Algorithms will be able to tell which musical notes make your heart skip a beat, then compose or adjust tunes to make them perfectly suited to your emotional needs. If they can do that with something as complex as a song, writing effective copy will be a walk in the park, especially when it’s up against the hit-and-miss quality produced by today’s humans.

Returning to the chess example, computers aren’t simply matching the current game to patterns learned from previous ones; they’re playing creatively. In 2017 Google invented a program called AlphaZero, which learned to play chess by playing against itself, with no human involvement whatsoever. How long did it take to learn how to beat the 2016 world computer chess champion? Four hours. And that was a whole year ago.

So what does that mean for the copywriters and art directors of today?