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Will AI Kill the Market Research Star?

Lisa Wilding-Brown

November 18, 2018

Recently, I attended TMRE (The Market Research Event) hosted in sunny Scottsdale, Arizona. The show was a great success and it enjoyed an impressive turn-out from a wide variety of companies across the research and data science eco-system. One session at the show really piqued my interest:  AI Will Replace Researchers: An Oxford-Style Debate. The panel was comprised of both MR and AI professionals from companies such as Facebook, Nest Labs, Pfizer, 20thCentury Fox as well as an academic from Harvard. On one side of the stage stood an impressive collection of astute researchers who argued that AI could never replace the Insights function.  On the other side of the stage were two AI experts who made several strong arguments on how AI will continue to evolve and eventually own the Insights trust for brands. At the start of the debate, the audience was polled on whether they agree that AI will replace the researcher. The results: 77% of the audience indicated that the researcher would always win out against the proverbial robot. After the debate, however, the audience had changed its tune; when asked again, over 45% of the audience indicated that AI would replace the Insights professional. While the research function did win out in this debate, AI claimed some serious footing in a room primarily full of researchers—and very quickly.

So, should we fear the AI movement?  Are we at the mercy of yet another disruptive technology that will be our demise? Despite our risk-averse nature, as an industry, we can’t stick our heads in the sand.  Over the last 10 years, we have been inundated with new methodologies, technology solutions and buzzwords that keep us up at night.  Some businesses have been especially successful in embracing new tech while others have planted their feet firmly in the ground with paper surveys in tow. Both solutions are valid in their own right but neither completely answer the plain-faced questions that I, and so many, are asking today, namely: “What is AI?” “How will it change the Market Research space?” And, most importantly, “Will it actually change the industry in new and exciting ways, or is it yet another technological advance that is all flash with no boom?”

What is Artificial Intelligence?

John McCarthy, a US Computer Scientist and the father of AI first coined the term ‘artificial intelligence’ in 1956 when he invited a group of researchers from a myriad of disciplines to a summer workshop called the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence.  The goal of this assembly was to discuss what would ultimately become the field of AI and agree upon its definition and the concepts surrounding “thinking machines.”  This notion was born out of the concept that “…every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.”

Modern definitions of AI consider it a sub-field of Computer Science and are typically interested in the ways that machines can imitate human intelligence rather than actually become human. Forbes contributor Bernard Marr echoes this idea, stating that “…the bulk of the AI development happening today by industry leaders uses human reasoning as a guide to provide better services or create better products rather than trying to achieve a perfect replica of the human mind.”

So, the good news is that the mission of AI does not set out to replace humans altogether, phew! Instead, contemporary scientists in the field of AI aim for technology which mitigates menial activities and/or high-volume outputs, enhancing human workflows while lessening the workload.  AI, as we know it, is about producing greater efficiencies, about deeper learnings across large data sets, and about freeing up humans to focus on more impactful and artful business interpretations.

Does this mean that AI is not a threat to MRX careers and that jobs across the entire MR eco-system are safe? Um, no—but this is where I tell you it’s time to PIVOT.  Even without technological imperatives like AI, how can anyone expect to live in a professional vacuum? There is an abundance of books, articles, webinars, and more published each year that set out to help professionals navigate all sorts of topics including corporate culture, mindfulness, gender parity, moat-building and—you guessed it—navigating disruptive tech! It’s time to start reading!

Lately, I’ve been following insightful, always high-energy, and sometimes irreverent entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk. If you haven’t discovered this whiz kid, I highly recommend you make your way over to his YouTube channel with a bowl of popcorn and time to spare. Vaynerchuk’s business prowess and obsessive hustle will suck you in. His point, and mine, is not to get stressed but to learn to pivot and to RELAX. If you have spent your entire career interpreting large datasets in a dark cubicle; seek and uncover new value in your offering because AI is coming for you. It’s not because AI is a younger and hotter version of your skills, it is simply a leg up to producing better insights and will allow you to focus your artful and critical human attention elsewhere. It’s time to pivot, not time to panic!

New tech has been challenging us for years.  Before the internet surge, we were doing paper surveys like it was going out of style. Nowadays, paper surveys are the minority here in the United States and most research is conducted online.  Think of AI as a new tool in your toolbelt rather than a chip on your shoulder; AI is not coming to make you obsolete, but it will if you shut the imaginary door on that 8×8 cubicle.

How Can We Apply AI to Market Research?

A few years ago, “Big Data” emerged as the hottest buzzword in our field.  Our war cry? “Data, Data, Data, give me more DATA!” We wanted more because we thought it would make us smarter. Agencies and brands alike became overwhelmed with troves of data from disparate and siloed sources. More data must be better though, right?  We even have meta-data, which is data about data! Unfortunately, many businesses in our industry were left thrashing and flopping in the wind: overwhelmed with databases, passive metering, and 3rd-party transactional data sources.  Plus, don’t forget about the hordes of data files and survey libraries across a surfeit of platforms sitting on your servers (if you are lucky enough to have them in-house and not sitting inside some nebulous cloud, ha, jk).  Sure, we had more data than we knew what to do with—that was the problem. Mapping data and streamlining disparate sources is a massive undertaking and even the brightest researchers are left pulling their hair out.  Here comes AI, enter stage left.

We are at the precipice of an amazing time in our field.  New companies and departments within existing businesses are surfacing every day to help us make sense of all this data and they are using machine learning and artificial intelligence to distill this information.  The outcome?  We are getting smarter, we are more invaluable, as we will have more time to work on other areas of our business and drive positive change for our constituents.  We need to face the facts—many of us are data hoarders.  Why else would surveys still be 25 minutes long in 2018?! If our business was a suburban house, it would be full to the brim with empty pizza boxes, soda cans, and cats—lots of cats.

AI will save time.

AI will produce better quality.

AI will save money.

AI will make us more efficient.

AI will make humans smarter.

So now what? Let’s stop fearing what AI will do to us and start to embrace the virtues of this computer science.  At the end of the day, AI will not replace the researcher. You are not a machine.  You see nuance where AI reads datasets. Research IS science and art and you my industry friends are a Picasso, not clip-art!

About the Author

Lisa Wilding-Brown

As a 15-year veteran, Lisa is responsible for quality, best practices and sampling methodologies as Innovate’s Chief Research Officer. Prior to joining Innovate, Lisa was a member of the executive team at uSamp where she developed the company’s global panel and led the mobile business division. Lisa got her start in Market Research at Harris Interactive where she played an instrumental role in developing the Industry’s first online panel, The Harris Poll Online. Lisa has presented at AAPOR, MRS, the MRMW, The Insights Association, SampleCon, WomenInResearch (WIRe), the GRBN and she has published research on engagement, survey design, quality and mobile best practices.

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