So the computer won. Does this mean the T2000 is just round the corner ready to rule over us puny humans?

UPDATE 28th April 2011: It’s happening!!

Probably not but note this paragraph from one news report:

“On the night of the grand finale, IBM announced a research agreement with speech recognition firm Nuance Communications, to “explore, develop and commercialise” the Watson computing system’s advanced analytics capabilities in the health care industry.”

That may well be true but if the “commercialisation” remains strictly within the “health care industry” then I’ll eat my hat. Make no mistake this is an incremental advance in better online advertising aimed at all of us.

Of course when I say “better” I mean from the point of view of those who like to advertise. For the average schmuck it means subtle changes to online messages.

These days when you visit a website for wine the next completely unrelated website you chance upon more often than not contains targeted ads for Chilean Merlot. Deleting cookies is tiresome so I tend to find this more worrying than irritating. It’s going to get worse.

Take this recent status update from a friend of mine on Facebook:

“Coupla Cuba Libres r on the menu in the tub after a day ridin like that!!”

Current clever textual analysis can probably identify that an alcoholic beverage is being called for and a targeted ad for rum might be worth a punt at this person. Decent software right now could probably take a guess with 90% certainty that it’s a bloke into sports so maybe chuck in some ads for snowboard rental too. If they were targeted at my pal Darren then that’s two sales straight off (both on the rum I might add).

Pretty easy huh? But what about this from another friend:

I was wroooooooooooooong, two under two – it’s hard! :O)”

Can you work out what it’s about? It’s a bit trickier. After a bit of cogitating you can probably can tell that this is from a female whose just had a second child. It didn’t take you long I’d wager and up until now a ‘puter would have had a tough time decoding this down into the essential saleable parts of “female” and “birth”. The repetition of the word “two” would provide — I’d guess — a tough challenge; semantically this is a sentence about arithmetic.

What would the technology behind Watson have made of it though? I suspect exactly the same as you did but within the time it takes an electron to oscillate. However, the crucial part of this status update is that bit at the end: “it’s hard”.

The mouth agape ‘surprise’ emoticon helps but let’s leave it aside — not everyone uses them. Establishing a person’s mood has always been the holy grail of sales. If you can decode not just what someone’s thinking (easy when it’s written down on Facebook or a blog post or a in a tweet) but also how they feel about it then you have , in advertising terms, just fixed the World Series.

I’m not suggesting my friend the mum-of-two will now receive ads for post-natal depression products — although I wouldn’t put it past some advertisers — it’s that the tone of ads can be subtly adjusted. Much work has been done on how well we absorb information based on our mood.

Would this mother respond best to:

“Pampers! Best for a happy baby”

or to:

“Pampers! Happy Mum and happy baby”?

I apologise to the collective genius of the advertising world for these two risible examples of ad copy but you get the idea. In the clip below IBM’s Steve Canepa talks about the “Smarter planet initiative” which lies behind the whole Watson project. And smart is the operative word. Quantity of ads is a dead-end: personally it’s hard to see just how they can cram more ads into the limited screen real estate we have right now, especially as web users become ever savvier at hiding/preventing banners and pop-up windows. Is there anyone still watching Youtube without dragging the screen into the bottom right corner so as to avoid the banners?

The future is cleverer more touchy-feely ads that will at first surprise you with their accuracy and later lull you as they track your thinking. Will this cause a backlash? Perhaps but don’t be surprised if eventually many come to respond to these sophisticated ads with the kind reassurance one assumes when leaning on friends for advice.

It sounds shocking and it pains me to write this, but we may just reach the point where all come to love online advertising.


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