Artificial Intelligence is the technology of the moment, no longer the stuff of science fiction. Woven like invisible thread through the services delivered by always-on devices, its impact is already tangible in our everyday lives.
Virtual home assistants can tell us whether we’ll need an umbrella when leaving the house, or switch on our central heating before we get home. By next year, voice search – which uses sophisticated speech recognition technology – will account for half of all searches across the internet. Predictive product recommendations are everywhere – from anticipating when we’re likely to run out of dishwasher tablets to introducing us to hot new tracks or box-sets through streaming services, which become ever more personalised the more we use them. And now anyone can take an Insta-worthy photo thanks to the AI in our phone cameras automatically tweaking the settings like a pro.
The potential of AI isn’t evenly distributed
AI and machine learning have tremendous potential to improve customer experience. Forward-thinking companies are embarking on an AI ‘arms race’ to gain competitive advantage, such as Japan’s Softbank, which is investing $100 billion to accelerate the AI revolution. Companies that fail to prepare for the AI-enabled future may not survive – since 2000, 52% of the Fortune 500 companies have either gone bankrupt, been acquired or ceased to exist as a result of digital disruption. Yet the current impact and promise of AI don’t seem to be evenly distributed from industry to industry.
Take e-commerce, for example - most online experiences could do with some improvement. How many times are you asked to input a plethora of unnecessary personal information, or prompted to generate a password with a specific combination of characters that you know you’ll never remember? When you’re shopping online, how often do you have to scroll through an overwhelming amount of irrelevant content because the retailer hasn’t intelligently filtered what you are shown based on what they already know about your purchase history?
How can the events industry operationalise AI?
As part of my role, I attend conferences like Cvent Connect Europe and Event Tech Live to stay up-to-date with the ways technology is infiltrating and influencing the event management space. While it’s always inspiring to hear about the ‘art of the possible’ when it comes to emerging technologies, I’m particularly interested in how AI can enhance our industry now and in the near future.
Chatbots are certainly an emerging trend in delegate support, based on software that is either pre-programmed or, more recently, powered by AI to ‘converse’ with humans. It’s easy to see how automated, concierge-style assistance on demand can come in handy to answer the inevitable questions such as “where are the toilets?” and “what session comes next?”. Much of this information can already be provided through event apps, but people tend to take the path of least resistance and communicating with a Chatbot via text is quick and easy, with no downloads or website logins required. From our perspective, it could also free up onsite event management professionals for more value-added activities that need human judgement and a capable pair of hands.
Facial recognition software is already ubiquitous – from unlocking newer phone handsets, to tagging photos on social media sites. The obvious use case for the events industry is to address the major pain-point of registration check-in bottlenecks by allowing pre-registered delegates to walk up to a camera and be identified quickly and securely. Deployed in a non-invasive manner, it could also be used to track who attends which sessions rather than scanning a badge every time someone enters a room, which would yield valuable insights to help plan content for future events, identify common interests and adjust session content for audiences.
One of AI’s strong suits is increased personalisation. There is the potential to use AI to power attendee recommendations, such as curating a bespoke agenda of sessions at a conference, or appointments on stands at an exhibition, tailored to their needs and interests. The drawback is that algorithms can only ‘learn’ from the data provided to them, which may be limited if the organiser doesn’t have a complete profile of attendees. However, AI ‘matchmaking’ engines can draw on rich data from already-populated social media profiles such as LinkedIn or Facebook. These insights can be used to help participants make valuable connections and maximise networking opportunities with like-minded professionals – like a kind of Tinder for events.
Technology is evolving faster than people and infrastructure
Like any form of digital disruption, AI is only as good as the people and infrastructure that underpin it. The availability of smart technology may not always be matched by the venue’s back-end facilities or the know-how needed to support it. If too many people in an event space are trying to connect concurrently via wi-fi, a lack of bandwidth could scupper their experience. An over-reliance on ‘black box’ technologies from third party specialists means that if something goes wrong, there may not be enough experience in the room to work out how to fix it.
Trust is also a key concern – there is always a balance to be struck between technology-enabled convenience and sinister surveillance! We find participants’ technology adoption is by no means universal – for example, not everyone wants to download and interact with a mobile event app, no matter how slick or sophisticated.
AI isn’t going to change the events landscape overnight, so I expect to see small, incremental improvements through technology. That might mean, for example, taking a mobile-first approach to delegate interactions to provide a simpler, more streamlined user experience than a desktop website. Or, as we are already doing, using QR codes to accelerate registration check-in as an intermediate step until both clients and participants are comfortable with the use of facial recognition software.
I predict AI won’t threaten jobs but will instead augment the human-machine partnership, helping to inform planning and decision-making, and turning untapped data sources into actionable insights. It’s up to us as an agency to understand the pros and cons of technologies that are starting to enter the mainstream, and focus on those that move the needle on participant experience, client satisfaction and return on objectives.