As if the recent news about Cambridge Analytica wasn’t enough, here’s another story. Because, after all, we’re all just mice to be trained to perform to the whims of others.

There is much hand-wringing and angst about Artificial Intelligence (AI) these days. Everyone from the newly late (and still great) Steven Hawking, to super-brain Elon Musk is trying to warn the world that there are some sub-optimal unintended consequences that could come from an unchecked growth in the use of AI. A recent acquisition is perhaps a glimpse of how that might happen.

First, some background. Fractal Analytics was founded back in 2000 and provides analytics services to a bunch of huge Fortune 500 companies around the globe. Analytics was, of course, what AI was called back in the day before it grew up and got cool and, as such, Fractal has a long history in the space. The operation has 1,200 employees spread across 14 global locations and has been noticed (in case that was a validation for you) by many of the high-brow analyst firms as a player to watch in the AI space.

Fractal recently announced that it has acquired Final Mile. Final Mile has itself been in business for a decade and works at another end of the spectrum. It is involved in the quaintly named practice of behavior architecture. Essentially that means applying behavioral science to understand why people make the decisions they do and, armed with that knowledge, to take actions to influence consumer and social behavior. In other words, they unashamedly get inside our minds and make us do stuff we wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to do previously.

Of course we shouldn’t be naïve and every marketing company, advertising shop and, for that matter, social media platform does similarly, but maybe they’re a tad more opaque about it. Hmmmm.

The approach Final Mile takes is a result of the “nudge” theory that was created by Nobel Laureate Richard Taler. The nudge theory suggests that changes in a consumer’s “choice architecture” – the environment in which people make choices – can positively influence their decision-making and lead to better choices. Were “better” actually means potentially better for someone else than the person in question. True, Nudge theory can be used to, for example, stop people drinking and driving, but something tells me that Fractal is more excited about having Nudge help me chose a different type of washing powder or hoe brand.

Since its inception, Final Mile has worked (of course) in the consumer goods space but, in its defense, it has also done work in the developmental and nonprofit sectors. Biju Dominic, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, Final Mile speaks to the science behind what Final Mile is doing, saying:

The human decision-making process is complex. To fundamentally address a challenge or shape the decision-making process, one must identify and understand what truly drives behavior. Organizations can achieve better outcomes by applying learnings from cognitive neuroscience, behavioral economics and design. That is our focus.”

For his part, Srikanth Velamakanni, Group Chief Executive & Executive Vice-Chairman, Fractal Analytics, is perhaps a little more prosaic about where this combination will really be directed, commenting that:

While artificial intelligence is becoming an integral part of products and services we consume, AI needs to incorporate better understanding of human behavior to improve human-machine interface, simplify information consumption and drive lasting behavior change. With this acquisition, we are bringing data science and behavioral science together to drive better outcomes for our clients.

MyPOV

From a science and technology perspective this is certainly an interesting acquisition and should build commercial success for Fractal. From a humanistic one, however, do we really need to make it easier for brands to make me bend to their will?

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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