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google Public notebook

Synthetic media: be as afraid as you ever were

Synthetic media is a term I’d not come across before hearing about Google’s paper on fighting disinformation that was published this week. It describes those eerily realistic images and video generated through artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning (ML) techniques.

You might have seen the video of the Jennifer Lawrence press conference where she has been gifted Steve Buscemi’s face as an example of this.

Image result for jennifer lawrence / steve buscemi

Deep fakes are what we more commonly call these.

Google says it is sharing datasets of synthetic media so that others can use it to spot deep fakes and develop systems that can do this. However it admits that there are limits to what tech can do – always slightly galling for a tech giant – and says it will need to also work with “researchers, policymakers, civil society, and journalists around the world”. Although none of these watchdogs have enjoyed complete success dealing with disinformation generated by non-silicon based actors, to coin a phrase. This last ditch defence against the tidal waver of fakes has been breached many times before.

Check your anti-tech moral panic

While we are trembling at the prospect of future synthetic media horrors, we might also recall that manipulating and misleading through media is something humans have been doing without support from AI for as long as we care to recall. See The Daily Mail and other tabloids in the UK’s decades-long campaign of disinformation about the European Union, for an example of this.

The Economist recently provided a helpful infographic of disinformation spread by the British media since the early 90s, sadly including stories published by non-tabloids such as the BBC and The Times.

Source: The Economist

The eyes! The eyes!

Another deep fake demo that crossed my awareness this week was a website called This Person Does Not Exist, which claims to showcase images of human faces that have been generated by an algorithm, something that previously had been hard to achieve.

Hit refresh and another fake face pops up. Obviously helped by foreknowledge, I thought that many of these would bear up to a glance, but still teetered on the edge of the uncanny valley.

The giveaway – when there is one – always seems to be the eyes. Sometimes more obviously than others…

Although other things can go wrong too…

I’m not sure about the provenance of this website. I’m aware that I may be enjoying it because it plays on whatever cognitive biases I have that make me want to believe that machines will never be able to completely fool me. In fact, they probably already have.

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advertising amazon brands google marketing

Low friction brands

We used to wonder about the future of advertising in brand marketing – now we are wondering about the future of brands themselves.

In his book about the tech giants of the 20-teens, The Four, Scott Galloway casts Google and Amazon as threatening the very existence of traditional consumer brands:

The insights into consumer behavior Google gleans from 3.5 billion queries each day make this horseman the executioner of traditional brands and media. Your new favorite brand is what Google returns to you in .0000005 second.

Galloway is nothing if not a master of the pithy line – but he backs up his argument with data:

the cost of customer acquisition continues to rise as consumers’ loyalty to brands erodes. You have to keep reacquiring them. In 2004, 47 percent of affluent consumers could name a favorite retail brand; six years later that number dropped to 28 percent. That makes pure e-commerce play increasingly dangerous. Nobody wants to be at the mercy of Google and disloyal consumers.

Of the thirteen firms that have outperformed the S&P five years in a row (yes, there’s just thirteen), only one of them is a consumer brand—Under Armour. Note: it will be off next year’s list. […] Amazon, armed with infinite capital provided by eager investors, is leading a war on brands to starch the margin from brands and deliver it back to the consumer. Death, for brands, has a name … Alexa.

There is supporting evidence for this view in the synchronised slump of Publicis and Unilever shares. The brand-media-advertising complex is looking shakier by the passing week.

At the consumer end of things, take a look at the rise of new consumer tech firms, described in a New York Times article this week – The Hidden Player Spurring a Wave of Cheap Consumer Devices: Amazon.

When you sit in an Uber in Brighton or a Didi in Beijing you will see evidence of this – $20 dash-cameras, car gadgets, at least two smartphones – all costing in total less than the ridiculously high-end luxury UX and glass luxury that might be your iPhone X.

Because of its scale and relative lack of interest in profit – the manufacturers and the consumer are connected by Amazon without it feeling or acting like a middleman in the transaction.

Allen Fung, a general manager at Sunvalley, which owns several upstart consumer tech brands explains that this isn’t about cheap, low quality tech:

It’s not a race to the bottom,” Mr. Fung said. “Sellers are forced to create better products at lower pricing, and sellers who aren’t able to do that just get weeded out.”

Competing and winning on Amazon means more than just cheap though – good customer service is essential part of the equation.

Mr. Fung recently spent a couple of hours providing an in-depth look at how he manages his company’s brands on Amazon. To win a certain product category — portable chargers, say, or children’s night lights — the company is obsessive about monitoring customer feedback, including the rate at which its products are returned. Sunvalley recently hired a team of customer service agents to respond to complaints. It has also hired industrial designers to improve the look of its devices — which also helps it stand out from other commodity devices on Amazon’s results page.

I find these brands, such as Anker to be ones that only really come into my consciousness when I’m looking for something on Amazon. They carry little cachet or style but with their reviews to back them up they are like cousins of the Amazons Basics range – as cheap as it gets but definitely reliable.

Perhaps we can call these low-friction brands, or the children of Amazon. The brand is built in the substance not the surface of their offer. the friction is low, because the investment in “brand” is limited to a logo, a name and a focused customer experience from purchase to product to support.

They are cutting out advertising and branding costs to lower cost and increase value to the consumer. Low-cost used to mean poor quality and zero customer service – because of the power of transparent reviews on Amazon, low-cost means a complete focus on what customers actually want.

Is this a new mode of branding, a utilitarian subset, or a glimpse of a future where brands are what Google Home or Amazon’s Alexa tell you are the best for whatever you need in that moment?