Zac Sheffer, CEO and Co-Founder, Elsen

It’s hard to run in technology circles – or even read about technology – these days without hearing about Artificial Intelligence (AI). Uber and Waymo (Google) are using it to create fleets of self-driving cars, IT security companies are using it to take on armies of hackers and, in my company’s case, we’re applying it to help portfolio and asset managers at large financial institutions make better investment decisions.

AI has been around for a long time, yet we are just getting to the point where we have the computing power to actually bring it into the mainstream. Now, people are exploring – and already starting to deploy – it in nearly every area of technology.

But what does this mean for CMOs? How is AI already being applied to marketing technology, and what else can we expect in the future? Those are questions I had the pleasure of discussing at the recent Boston Chapter Dinner and Roundtable, hosted by the CMO Club. I was honored to attend as the guest of Jane Hood, Elsen’s Advisor from Hyperplane Venture Capital – who is now Elsen’s CMO and a member of the CMO Club – and dive a little deeper on the topic.

AI is going to be the catalyst for our next great technical revolution.

Just like the wide-ranging socioeconomic impacts of the Industrial Revolution and, more recently, the Digital Revolution, AI will change nearly every aspect of how we live and work. For some people, this is scary to think about. There’s a lot of talk about how intelligent machines could turn against the human race – science fiction authors and Hollywood screenwriters have certainly portrayed the technology this way. But it’s more likely that the intelligent machines we create will not have malicious intent.

However, their bias towards efficiently achieving goals is what should concern us. In a TED Talk last year, the philosopher and neuroscientist, Sam Harris, likened this to the way humans treat ants. We generally don’t wish them harm and might even take caution to avoid stepping on an ant on the street. But if an ant colony stood in the way of a construction project, you can bet that it wouldn’t be spared. As Harris points out, these are the things that we need to be thinking about now as we continue to quickly advance intelligent technology over the next few decades.

But that’s big picture thinking. In the short term, there are real implications that CMOs need to be considering. If you need convincing, consider Gartner’s prediction that 20 percent of all business content will be authored by machines by 2018. And then look around at where AI and machine learning (ML) are already being applied to solve niche problems. The speed with which companies are adopting cloud computing has been a real driver for AI-powered products that are already in use today. The cloud enables access to lots of good data for testing and training, and the computing power needed to process all that data. Most of us are probably already benefiting from this on a daily basis – using Siri to find the nearest Starbucks, using Alexa to help manage the household or relying on Spotify to serve up a personalized playlist of the music you want to hear, for example.

From a marketing perspective, chatbots are a great example of where AI is already having a meaningful impact. Last spring, Facebook rolled-out a capability for people to interact with companies and brands via Messenger. In a speech to unveil the feature, Mark Zuckerberg showed how you can now order flowers through a very conversational chat with 1-800-Flowers on Facebook. But this type of technology isn’t just for big brands on social media – it’s become much more widely available. For example, Kylie is a service that will learn from your email interactions in order to draft responses for you.

Some of the other companies using AI to help improve marketing that we discussed at the include:

  • Indico: an API for extracting sentiment analysis from text and image data
  • Intercom: a company applying AI to improve customer support
  • Hopper: an app that analyzes data to find you the best deals on flights by knowing when to book and when to fly

These only scratch the surface. There are dozens of other companies applying AI to all different areas of marketing, and we’ll surely continue to see that number increase exponentially. It’s an area that every CMO should at least be considering and, if they choose to adopt AI-powered technology, close governance will be important. Not because of the fear that machines will take over the Earth, but because we’re still in the early days of this technology and there are a number of kinks that still need to be worked out.

For an example of AI gone wrong, look no further than Tay, a Twitter-based chatbot developed by Microsoft. Tay was built as an experiment in “conversational understanding” and was designed to learn from its interactions with people. But in less than 24 hours after being deployed, it ended up learning a lot from the worst elements of the Twitter mob, ultimately sending a handful of misogynistic and even racist Tweets.

Tay is a good cautionary story and example of how AI could backfire. But it’s not a reason to avoid AI-enabled technology. If you avoid AI, you’ll be left behind – you just need to explore it thoughtfully and practically as the technology still evolves.


Zac Sheffer is CEO and Co-Founder of Elsen, the Platform-as-a-Service company for large financial institutions. The Elsen nPlatform enables anyone to effortlessly harness vast quantities of data to make better decisions and quickly solve the most complex problems.