The allure and promise of artificial intelligence is limitless — with very real potential to surpass or replace humans in many capacities.

While progressive-minded (and optimistic) companies and individuals are starting to adopt AI-infused technologies to augment their work, there’s just as many skeptics, non-believers, and “cautious approachers.” Elon Musk warns that “with artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon,” and Stephen Hawking says that artificial intelligence “could spell the end of the human race.”

With so much hype, so too comes fear, uncertainty, and doubt. In no industry is this more prevalent than marketing. But marketing is precisely where AI can and is already shining and making noise.

Where is AI Coming From?

The concept behind AI can be traced back to the 1950s and the “Turing Test” when Alan Turing, an English computer scientist, tested a human evaluator’s ability to distinguish between responses from both another human and a machine programmed to generate human-like responses.

In the half century that followed, AI expectations have fluctuated as advancements (and accompanying hype waves) in the technology have come and stagnated.

The current era — coined “The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” “Information Age,” and “Age of the Customer” — possesses differentiating characteristics that separate it from previous spikes in AI hype.

Evolutions in data collection and storing, computing power, and bandwidth enable widespread, massive data processing at scale in ways never before conceived of. In addition, open-source libraries and platforms dedicated to AI allow for unprecedented collaboration, resulting in increased algorithm potential and model development.

AI marketing
Image source: Thomvest Ventures
twitter “Evolutions in #data collection & storing, computing power, & bandwidth enable widespread, massive data processing at scale in ways never before conceived of,” says Laura Cain of Thomvest Ventures CLICK TO TWEET

Thus, companies that have leveraged these kinds of systems are solving problems — and communicating with customers more granularly and in new ways — than they were previously capable of achieving.

The Current State of AI

According to Bill Gates, the next 30 years will see incredible technological innovation, and, in my estimation, parallel the level of disruption witnessed by the advent of the internet.

As machines continue to gain the ability to learn and make decisions independently, the uses of AI will grow, spurring exponential application for marketers. However, development and adoption is still in the early stages. In speaking with AI startups and researching the space for some time, it’s clear that the goal of AI-enabled marketing technology is not to replace the workforce, but to enhance it.

Complete AI autonomy of individual marketing-related tasks is not yet achievable. Computers can accomplish single tasks; but they lack the ability to fully execute an entire marketing strategy as of now. But AI is supplementing and augmenting many marketing jobs.

At Thomvest Ventures, we’ve been studying the evolution and impact of AI technologies for the past few years. AI is, indeed, a horizontal application as opposed to a vertical one, from an investment perspective.

AI startup companies are focused on either infrastructure or what’s emerging as “AI-as-a-Service.” Within the space, large technology incumbents have traditionally dominated broad, horizontal AI niches like image recognition, natural language processing, and the like.

The benefit for tech giants specializing in AI capabilities is their extensive access to data in conjunction with robust algorithms and models which position them to offer broad, generic capabilities to their customers.

Application of AI in Retail

Retail is one of the most interesting use cases for application of AI. There are a multitude of ways that AI has and will continue to supplement the ability of retail brands to improve the customer experience.

For example, AI can help retail brands:

  • Enable “image-based” searches for products in their inventory
  • Offer personalized product/item recommendations based on large sets of acquired customer data
  • Predict demand and optimize pricing, discounts, and incentives
AI Industries
Image source: Thomvest Ventures

Retail is a particularly interesting vertical for AI applications due to its impact on our day-to-day interactions and experiences. Through AI, we will achieve personalization at scale, which will undoubtedly change how we discover, engage, and transact with each other.

twitter“With #AI, we’ll achieve #personalization at scale which will change how we discover, engage, & transact w/ eachother ,” says Laura Cain of Thomvest Ventures CLICK TO TWEET

Final Thoughts

The opportunity for digital marketers and retail companies to get a head start on using AI in practical senses is already well underway. While we may be several years from true AI — where machines are as skillful and flexible as humans — brands can benefit dramatically from productivity gains demonstrated by data science and machine learning solutions.

Opportunistic marketers and the companies they work for will take advantage of this real wave of AI. It’s here to stay. The most recent spike in activity and rhetoric around AI marketing is not simply talk or rumor.

The holy grail for any marketer is to deliver the right message to the right audience at the right time. Advances in AI and ML lay the foundation to make this possible at meaningful scale.

This article originally ran on the Thomvest Ventures blog in October of 2017, and has been slightly reworked for the Emarsys blog.

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