Intelligent Life


Jo Bowman

Might your colleagues one day be robots, your research merely simulated by some super-intelligent machine? Professor Nuria Agell of ESADE Business School in Barcelona thinks that, one day, the truth may be stranger than science fiction, writes Jo Bowman

At first, it sounds a little far fetched, but a decade ago, much of today’s mobile technology would have sounded like it came from an episode of Star Trek, too. So consider a moment the idea that, as well as crunching the numbers that quantitative research generates, a computer might one day be able to generate original insights from that data. It might be able to link today’s data with research done years ago to draw another conclusion, or remember a magazine article it read that was relevant and incorporate that, too. As well as processing numbers, it could also process facial expressions, locations, eye movements and comments elicited and overheard. And it might even come up with the next big breakthrough product idea – or enough of an idea to inspire a human being to perfect it. This is the kind of world predicted by artificial intelligence developers, and for market researchers, it is, potentially, an enormous aid to finding better insights and creating better, more targeted products, services and communications. There’s also a chance it could give researchers a strong push along the road to obsolescence.

What counts as intelligence is a sizeable philosophical question in itself; what constitutes artificial intelligence is an even more complex subject, one that, across the scientific community, is the subject of lively debate.

For Nuria Agell, artificial intelligence can span a range of applications, from a book-recommendation algorithm on, to a robotic companion that “knows” just the right thing to say to cheer you up after a bad day at work.

“Artificial Intelligence is a branch of computer science – but there are also people collaborating from cognitive science and mathematics and engineering – that aims to build or construct machines, systems, software or objects with the capacity of reasoning similar to human beings,” she says.

Algorithms that can suggest products or music you might like, based on your browsing preferences or purchase history, are already commonplace, replicating the role that a friendly, knowledgeable record shop owner would have had in days gone by – except with no lapses of memory, no bad moods and no need for a lunch break. This kind of ability, without human failings, has obvious appeal to business. “Humans are good at that, but sometimes our reasoning or what we do depends on whether we’re feeling more or less optimistic and whether we’re feeling tired and can’t bring all the information we have to mind all the time,” Agell notes.


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