This year’s edition of The Conference explored artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things.

This year’s edition of The Conference, an event exploring emerging digital culture that took place in Malmö, Sweden, invited attendees to ponder a near future in which artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things have radically transformed consumers’ everyday lives. The Innovation Group attended with a view to identifying key trends and emerging debates.

Presenters from MIT Media Lab, Microsoft Research, Ogilvy Labs, ustwo, and IBM Interactive Experience shared their views on the most effective ways that brands can navigate this fast-evolving future. Some of the most important issues that were discussed included the growing complexity of robots–human relationships, the ethical and privacy implications of the Internet of Things, and the increasing invisibility of technology in our everyday lives.


Robots teach us to be more human

Many speakers were convinced that our sense of what it means to be human will soon change. As robots enter homes, cars, schools and hospitals to assist us with our daily lives, businesses hold the opportunity to create intelligent systems that will support consumers in their understanding of themselves.

In her talk, “Robots, Humans and Artificial Intelligence,” MIT Media Lab researcher Kate Darling predicted that as robots become more common, they will have a profound impact on human psychology. She cited examples of the complex social relationships evolving between humans and robots, such as the elaborate funerals that Japanese owners of Sony Aibo robot-dogs have been staging since the company announced it would no longer support Aibo repairs. Owners have gathered in Buddhist temples to mourn the loss of their robotic pets, proving the extent to which consumers can become emotionally attached to a smart product if it delivers companionship and improves quality of life.


Darling also expressed concerns about the risk of what she called “emotional manipulation.” Consumers could, in fact, become so emotionally attached to their in-home robotic assistants that they could be easily tricked by unfair in-app purchase triggers and mandatory software upgrades.

Experiments underway today suggest that the arrival of a robot economy could create complex ethical issues, Darling said. As an example, she described the case of the first hitchhiking robot, hitchBOT. Developed by McMaster University and Ryerson University in Canada, this research experiment was born as an attempt to investigate whether or not robots can trust humans. Setting hitchBOT off on a 10,000 km journey across North America and Europe, they hoped to prove that it could rely on human kindness and goodwill. These hope were dashed when the robot was brutally vandalized in early August 2015. The experiment serves as a provocation to those who believe that robots are the only agents prone to destructive behavior in a future world where robots and humans coexist.

In a world where artificial intelligence increasingly permeates consumers’ lives, brands must consider emerging ethical challenges alongside commercial opportunities. The emotional issues at play suggest that as brands enter this space, they must take stock of the human–robot relationship in all its complexity.


The Internet of Things demands a new ethic

Many presentations at The Conference focused on data privacy. In particular, researcher Kati London of Microsoft Research FUSE Labs identified privacy as a growing concern for consumers and brands. If businesses are to make the most of the burgeoning opportunities offered by the nascent Internet of Things, she argued, they will need to standardize business practices and properly address issues of data ownership and exchange.

Kati London helps Microsoft drive real-world engagement with data. Her speech at The Conference explored new difficulties created by innovations such as sensor technology and intelligent objects, which capture more and more information about our everyday movements. These advances are creating a highly connected world where personal privacy becomes increasingly difficult to preserve, demanding new modes of human–tech interaction.

To illustrate her point about the complexity of data ownership, she cited her urban development project, Pop Pop. A prototype for a connected traffic light, Pop Pop catches pedestrians’ attention with emoticons and pithy phrases in order to nudge positive behavior, such as avoiding jaywalking. As projects like this educate the public about the data collection already underway, there is growing concern about how we monitor, store and exchange the collected data. Users may rebel if they feel the benefits of a product are not worth compromising their privacy. In this emerging scenario, brands have an opportunity to establish responsible terms of engagement and alleviate consumer concerns.


The future looks like the past

Every year The Conference poses the question: what does the future look like? Some presenters at this year’s event responded by perpetuating the prevailing futuristic vision of sci-fi films. Others, such as creative scientist Kate Stone, forecasted a consumer landscape stripped clean of visible tech. This speculative future is powered by the Internet of Things and driven by growing consumer demand for meaningful interactions.

In the “Getting a Dialogue Going” session, Cambridge-based Stone examined the development of the Internet of Things. As technology breaks free from the limitations of the screen and embeds itself in everyday objects, she posited that humans learn to interact with products in a new way. The Internet of Things opens up a new economy of products and services where “everything around us could be immersively, magically, and intuitively interactive,” she mused.

Stone’s company Novalia recently collaborated with San Francisco–based DJ QBert to produce the world’s first album cover to function as a DJ deck. The interactive cover opens to reveal a graphic depiction of a turntable that links to an app. As fans tap on the “turntable,” the app scratches, mixes and fades any song of choice from DJ QBert’s Extraterrestria album. While this project might be considered slightly crude in its execution, it successfully enhances the user experience. By embedding technology in a fairly antiquated, everyday object, Novalia empowers DJ QBert fans to become music creators.

As Stone and others like her launch viable Internet of Things products, signs of technological advancement will become hidden within the products themselves. While today we see signs of technology everywhere, Stone’s vision of the future imagines technology to be completely invisible, much like the past. This take on the digital era represents an opportunity for brands to engage with their audiences in a relevant way, where the product experience comes first and technology serves only to enhance the customer experience.


In this emerging business landscape where artificial intelligence will one day permeate all layers of our consumer lives, brands must:

– Consider ethical challenges along with commercial opportunities.

– Address the issue of data privacy to win the trust of consumers in the Internet of Things landscape.

– Prioritize experiences over products as the Internet of Things becomes more mainstream and technology becomes invisible.