The rise of AI Influencers


Last week, Sina Hegny, Magda Lojszczyk of EE and I presented some thoughts on AI Influencers at Social Media Week London, reflecting on our work with EE at BAFTA 2019. For this activation, we enlisted the help of Shudu, one of the new breed of entirely artificial Instagram Influencers which we're going to see a lot more of over the next year or so.

Influencers have come a long way as brand advocates and are often the first choice in achieving reach and brand advocacy by proxy, but there is growing evidence that the level of trust in them is peaking. What was once an attractive proposition for brands - ordinary people, passionate about their favourite hobbies, point of view and brand loyalty - is now such a firm part of the media landscape that trust is waning. Influencing is not only a full time job for many, it's even a path to the kind of fame and fortune which celebrity brand ambassadors enjoyed in the heyday of mass media. But where technology gave us this new form of digital media driven reach, it is now allowing us to create an entirely artificial influencer, completely under the brand's control and able to navigate that tricky balance of trust, innovation and creative control.

'AI Influencers' are an emerging tool in the brand marketing box, allowing us to shape the discourse and message we're seeking to whilst doing so directly within the language and form or modern social media. Many, such as Shudu, have started as artistic statements on fashion and representation but have then gone on to represent brands like Fenty, Glossier and Apple. The realism which they present has left many to wonder where the boundary between real and digital now is.

For BAFTA 2019, with a brief from EE to bring red carpet fashion to life in a way which highlighted their technology and innovation, we turned to leading virtual influencer Shudu to show the public what the future of brand ambassadorship might look like. In order to do so, we had to make some conscious design decisions.

There's a central difficulty with artificial entities, whether in their physical representation or in their simulation of intelligence. The more that they try to act human, the less we trust them. This 'uncanny valley' effect was once mostly directed at robots and computer graphics, but as we start to interact with AI processes more and more, the effect is even more noticeable in our encounters with them, whether through voice, chatbots or this new visual incarnation.

In order to counter this effect, and with apologies to Issac Asimov, we devised a new "three laws of robotics":

  1. Don't pretend to be human. Both Lil' Miquela and Shudu have both clearly stated to confused followers that they aren't human. If we have something presented to us as human, and then it doesn't give human responses, both our illusion in the effect and the trust in it's source is eroded.

  2. Work within your limitations. The truth is, most artificial intelligence isn't that intelligent. Although research is continuing apace, the goal of general human intelligence is a distant one, and may not even be entirely achievable. Rather than ignore this in the name of 'cool', it's best to design within the constraints of what the technology actually allows and not the hype. For BAFTA, this meant restricting Shudu's interactions to simpler forms of movement, having her largely static on the carpet, and having her chat-bot element, in which folks at home could interact with her, bound to specific questions and responses by way of multiple choice buttons rather than free conversation.

  3. State your purpose. Influencers work because they are specific about what they're there for (as opposed to a generalised celeb, e.g. a musician that also endorses a beverage). They are gamers, fashionistas, travellers. It's this quality which has made them trusted and powerful advocates. Virtual influencers must not try to be all things to all people or, in deference to the first law, present as just your average person going about their day and, "hey, isn't this a cool product"! When you give your influencer a role, it establishes the grounds on which people will interact. For BAFTA, we gave Shudu the role of 'AI stylist'. She did what no human could have done, scan the outfits of people on the carpet and trawl the internet instantly for similar, affordable fashion. By giving our AI not only a role, but a function which humans couldn't achieve themselves, we were leveraging all that is useful about AI, whilst presenting in a fun, culture aware context which people found engaging.

This technology is in its infancy, but these conscious design decisions help us provide brand influence in a way which is controllable in messaging for maximum impact, but also inviting of trust rather than being just another layer of artifice within our communications.