Comment: Artificial intelligence must crack serendipity to usher in ‘age of the robot’

Comment: Artificial intelligence must crack serendipity to usher in ‘age of the robot’

Will technology ever be able to do serendipity? That was the key question raised at a special industry gathering in a top London restaurant on Wednesday night to mark Expedia’s 20th anniversary.

Two decades on from when the pioneering global OTA pulled back the curtain to reveal the inner workings of the travel sector by turning the travel agency screen round to face the customer, technology continues to promise so much more.

The dinner group, drawn largely from the UK travel, tourism and technology start-up sector, heard from Brennon Williams, chief executive of Iridium Systems and Robotics Corporation who began the discussion by introducing a sense of science fiction to proceedings.

We’re not far away, he claimed, from Cognitive Artificial Intelligence enabling machines to hold the sort of unstructured conversations with us that you might expect to have with your organic, human travel agent today and to glean from that data the insight to present the perfect product.

Could there be a time, guests considered, when a device you are wearing, or even one you’ve injected into your brain, monitors your stress levels, aggregates your wants and desires and calculates that the best thing for you right now is to book a trip to New York?

This wasn’t a concept that met with universal approval in the room amid concerns that machine-drive aggregation and filtering down of options can only leads to a homogenous, undifferentiated morass as an algorithm calculates what people like you on average tend to like and discounts anything from leftfield.

But maybe this is to fundamentally misunderstand what AI is going to be truly capable of because we’re stuck with processes and technologies based around less sophisticated AB test and learn protocols. This is certainly Expedia’s mantra today, but it won’t be long before AI starts to play an important role in how it hones it products and services for the future.

AB testing in an agile business culture certainly means firms are able to make continual incremental advances. It also means through continual experimentation any emerging trends, consumer requirements and technological capabilities are kept on top of.

But firms will tell you that despite their best intentions, as much as 40% of the changes that are made to a website through this technique actually turn out to make the customer experience worse. Much higher and you may as well sanction making changes you think will actually make things worse and if you get to that stage why involve human intelligence at all? A computer could just be programmed to continually make thousands of random tweaks, test the outcome over an agreed time period and stick with those the data says work.

This appliance of science is devised to make life a little less random, to ratchet up little by little the percentage chance of successfully presenting the customer with the right product at the right time in the right format and place.

If Cognitive AI can really replicate human relationships and conversations, however, that means machines, or robots if you like, will one day be able to pick up on the inherently emotional nature of travel, will be able to help us discover something new we didn’t know we wanted before we started that interaction and feed our desire for bragging rights when it comes to travel.

But all that seems a long way off when most travel websites you’ll visit today still require you to input most of your requirements before presenting a set of results, albeit increasingly curated and personalised.

When it comes to inspiration, that’s often where travel start-ups come in, although their failure rate demonstrates travel remains a sector in which those that inspire and inform early on often end up doing the work for those poised to grab the final booking at the bottom of the purchase funnel.

Then there’s the issue of suppliers’ legacy technology meaning they are simply unable to provide the product and data that these sophisticated forms of hyper-personalised retailing require. One hotelier in the group says his staff are given free reign to provide ‘random acts of kindness’. Isn’t randomness the precise opposite of what technology is all about?

AI promises much, but it remains a question whether human beings are prepared to let a machine into their lives in such an intimate way as will be required if it is to replace the best a fellow human can offer.

As one guest – taking advantage of the Chatham House rules in place during the discussion – pointed out what about people who are having affairs, or alternatively are planning a secret romantic getaway with their partner?

There are times when people want to be anonymous, when they don’t want their thoughts, internet browsing history and personal data at risk of being seen on shared devices or exposed thanks to algorithmically generated personalised advertising and retargeting.

Serendipity is what raises life above the mundane and formulaic and puts smiles on people’s faces. Until travel technology can do that the robots will have to wait for their time to come.

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