This article was first published by Campaign Asia.

PHD APAC’s Chris Stephenson, regional head of strategy and planning, presented a Spikes audience with a vision of a near future world where humans have abdicated most of their purchase decisions, and the purchasing task itself, to AI-driven VPAs (virtual personal assistants) operating in millisecond-speed online exchanges.

The company’s prognostications may seem both absurdly precise and as if they come from science-fiction stories (see below). But if even half of what PHD is predicting happens, the business of marketing, not to mention the consumer experience, will be unrecognisable. And not so long from now.

In fact, the current time is one minute to midnight on “AI eve”, Chris said. “We are on the verge of a massive, massive breakthrough.”

Stephenson likened the current situation to the time just before the mass adoption of electricity. No one then could predict what it would be used for, but in the end, we integrated it into everything and became completely reliant on it.

“This is how AI is going to land,” he said. “Everything will be cognitised.”

Chris then presented a detailed timeline of future milestones. Here are some highlights:

2018: Marketers are no longer dependant on intention data, and can start to do enough processing to understand how people actually feel about products.

2019: The ability to identify high-purchase-intention individuals and target them with personalised messages becomes commonplace.

2019: People begin outsourcing decision-making to AI-powered VPAs, which learn faster and faster thanks to access to ever-increasing amounts of data.

“We are dealing not with machines, but with minds that are capable of managing our lives,” he said, giving the example of an AI that can rebook all the arrangements for a trip, right down to reserving a taxi and “calling Aunt Martha to tell her you’ll be a day late”.

2020: AI-driven VPA decisions become the predominant commerce gateway. Marketers are dependent on them.

2021: The “Quality relevance score” becomes the basis of marketing because it is the basis on which AIs are making decisions.

“The QR score becomes the obsession of marketing, because it’s the only way to win bids that are happening in real time.”

2021: Bid speed is the main and perhaps only source of competitive advantage for media agencies.

2022: All response ads are generated algorithmically.

2023: VPAs make pre-emptive decisions on our behalf. We outsource our consumer decisions to them.

“People are no longer buying products and services,” Chris said.

2024: The basis of marketing is influencing AIs, not humans.

2029: The first company founded and run by an AI appears. Machines flirt and laugh with us.

The timeline ended there, leaving us to wonder whether it ends in a) a nirvana where people are automatically supplied with products they don’t even know they need but nonetheless make them joyful and where companies never waste resources creating products that end up being failures, or b) some sort of Skynet situation where we all end up mindlessly enslaved (or worse) by AIs that we originally created to buy toothpaste for us.

Jesting aside, Chris’s subtext was that the technology is already real and powerful, its evolution is accelerating and it will have an enormous impact. Can’t argue with that. But what should companies do now? Chris offered the following advice:

  • Get used to human decision-making getting purged from processes. Chris half-jokingly recommended that people speed themselves through the Kübler-Ross approach to grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
  • Get a PhD in SEO: “The ad-biddable model is the basis for everything that is to come,” he said.
  • Love your data: Use it wisely. Treat it well. Get more of it.
  • Remember we are human: The capacity to create and have imagination will still be important. “AIs will not be our enemies in this,” Chris said. “They will be allies in manifesting worlds and opportunities and possibilities that we can only imagine.”