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Commentary: Artificial Intelligence Should Complement, But Never Replace, the Human Connection

April 2, 2018, 7:00 PM UTC
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For all the hype about artificial intelligence, this much is true: AI can do some pretty amazing things. Whether correctly predicting consumer tastes in television shows or music, or finding the best route home in rush hour traffic, the possibilities seem endless. But technology still can’t replace the human touch or the human heart, and for the businesses that lose sight of this, AI may be a threat rather than an opportunity.

The key is using artificial intelligence to augment and enhance the human element, rather than replace it. This is especially apparent in the luxury beauty industry, which has successfully married the technical science of product development with the human ability to make people feel beautiful.

For example, Shiseido, the company I work for, uses AI to customize and deepen the consumer experience. But we also apply a human touch to everything we do, adhering to the Japanese philosophy of omotenashi, which describes the subtle connection between respect, trust, and selflessness.

We recently acquired MatchCo, a Palo Alto, Calif. startup that developed a mobile app enabling consumers to scan their skin tone to identify and create a personalized foundation, and then order the customized blend. Rather than diminish the unique qualities inherent in every person, like technology sometimes does, in this case, AI actually intensifies the emotional relationship with the customer.

AI can frequently pinpoint our preferences and make suggestions as a result, but there are very real limits to what it can get right. What is more, in some cases, the ability to predict can be a liability when it comes to building a genuine emotional connection to consumers, which is at the very heart of serving them.

The need to surprise is one example, and this can be crucial to help turn an everyday purchase into a deeper, more pleasurable experience. Here, AI might provide a framework—but there is no match for human emotion in picking out an unexpectedly pleasing color or fragrance.

Similarly, when it comes to creating an intimate connection with consumers, which is essential in any luxury or lifestyle industry, technology will never replace human sensitivity. Note Apple’s teaming up with Hermès to create a smart watch, or Delta’s surprise-and-delight service that transfers elite customers from gate to gate in a Porsche but can’t be requested or scheduled beforehand. These aspirational experiences are made possible only through human curation.

Because for all the power of algorithms and big data, the decision to buy a product is often rooted in emotional need rather than rational choice. This explains why lipstick sales increase in times of crisis. The pleasure of trying out a new color when everything else seems out of control is a human impulse that machines can neither comprehend nor anticipate.

To put it another way, technology needs to be at the service of deepening human relationships. In a world where technology is evolving at a faster and faster pace, and individuals can feel like they are being left behind, human connections put us back at the center of the equation.

Marc Rey is the president and chief executive officer of Shiseido Americas.