Selling To The Algorithm: The Rise Of Robot Consumers

Every new technology unleashes its own hype and hysterias. From the typewriter to the car, the light bulb to the steam-powered loom, the new invention is declared both the saviour of humanity and the end of life as we know it.

Artificial Intelligence and robotics are no exception to this pattern. In fact, they may be the ultimate expressions, as we attempt to make a technology directly comparable to a human being. If the technologies think like us, look like us, work like us, only better, what does that mean for us?

Most people are worrying about the effect of robots on our jobs. Will we still need doctors and lawyers? Will we even need computer programmers? Will we need a state-provided basic income to survive? Or will the technology create its own new creative boom, like so many in the past, where we have more, better, more fulfilling work, hand-in-hand with our non-human partners and collaborators? Robots could be our co-workers, not our competition, as this Wired article suggests and the Sloan school at MIT argues.

These are interesting questions, and ones on which much has already been written. As with most scenarios of the future, I reckon neither the bright-eyed optimists nor the wailing pessimists are completely right. But as a designer and product creator, I’m more interested in exploring what will happen when the robots aren’t taking your jobs, but becoming your customer.

How do you design for, sell to, and serve the needs of your non-human consumers?

I’m not just talking about shopping bots, doing price comparisons and delivery for their human masters. I’m also talking about things like fashion, healthcare, art and education for an entirely new population of purchasers. What will your brand and business mean to them?

I started thinking about this when my friend and sometimes collaborator, Brian David Johnson, who is a futurist, roboticist and science fiction writer, mentioned that he needs to carry his robot Jimmy, in a baby sling. Jimmy’s sensors get overwhelmed in big crowds, and he needs to rest. But the sling also helps Jimmy communicate to the broader world. It tells people that he is vulnerable, and requires some care and attention. It changes the relationship between him and his human companions. He needs his own fashion and accessories to navigate the complexity of human interaction and meanings.

Now, not every robot will need clothes. But here are three ways of thinking about the types of products and services non-human consumers might need and how they might impact your business.

Selling to the algorithm

In many cases, you’ll need to sell your product to the AI before it can be made available to the end consumer. The technology will be monitoring an individual’s needs, in real time, running simulations, and projecting what they will need next, and aggregating that product with other products. For example, the technology will determine what is the perfect breakfast for your scheduled day, your current mood, and your own metabolic system.

Instead of shelf appeal to the human eye, how do you make your product appeal to the algorithm that is making that decision or recommendation? You’re going to have to have the data, in the right format, to support the right questions and deliver the right answer. This isn’t necessarily a skill set that a major food, drink or pharmaceutical company considers a core competency, but could provide a substantial competitive advantage.

Providing social currency

As we saw with Jimmy, a large part of what brands and products do is communicate wordlessly with those around us. They help us tell the story of who we are, where we come from, the tribe we belong to, and the interaction we want to have. Robots will need to speak this language and communicate their own social currency.

What meanings do your products provide to your human consumers? Which of these meanings will non-humans need to understand and also project? What new meanings will these consumers need?

It may seem awkward, but try writing a short story about how your current product will be used by robots of the future to try and imagine this.

Fulfilling new and unique needs

Ultimately, robots and AI will have requirements and needs that are unique to them, and transcend human categories.

For example, think again about Jimmy. The baby sling is a convenient solution, but if robots need to rest and recharge, what is their equivalent of a bed or an easy chair? If sensors get overheated in certain conditions, do they need robot sunglasses? If joints and mechanics wear out over time, do they need a daily supplement?

We talk about human-centered design a lot in business and industry. Putting people at the core of how we conceive of and make new products. But non-human customers will require a new design practice for the future. Making stuff, making meanings, for each other.

Julie Jenson Bennett is CEO of Precipice Design. Julie has been a driving force behind Meaning-Centred Design, a new way for companies to make sense of markets and cultures and create products that people will value more.