Professional development and training blog of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
June 4, 2013

What Happens When Machines Become “Social?”

Elizabeth Albrycht Last Friday, I had the opportunity to talk to Peter Semmelhack, the founder and CEO of Bug Labs, and author of the recently published book, “Social Machines.” Peter will deliver the Friday keynote address at the PRSA 2013 Digital Impact Conference, June 27–28, in New York City. All I can say is, get ready to have your mind blown! Our conversation was one of the most stimulating I have had in a while — the kind that immediately goes off track, gets your brain working in a thousand directions at once as it considers the implications of what it is hearing, and is just plain fun.

Peter told me that he spent his youth with soldering iron in hand as he and his dad used Heathkits to explore the possibilities of electronic devices. His various businesses have continued this interest, creating software, hardware and services that, at their core, are about connectivity. His latest venture, BugLabs, continues this work as he builds the tools needed to create what is currently called the “Internet of Things.”

After introducing ourselves to each other, we started talking about definitions — my favorite place to start. The first question I asked was, “What is a ‘thing?’” (You have to admit, “thing” is one of the quintessentially undefinable terms in the English language — the term we use when we can’t figure out what term to use! This leads me to laugh a bit about how much this new area obviously troubles our intellects.) Peter’s “things” are network devices that have no screen and a limited or no user interface. Think air conditioners, vending machines or wearable fitness trackers. This is, of course, in contrast to other connected devices, such as smartphones or tablets. It doesn’t mean that “things” are dumb, it just means that their intelligence resides elsewhere — probably in the growing data cloud.

Peter’s “aha!” moment came through his consideration of vending machines. These have been connected to the network since the 1980s, primarily for the purposes of remote monitoring, which companies did in order to maximize the efficiency of the machines. His question became, “What if we could use this connectivity in a new way, to communicate with customers and actually make money?”

Thus, the book, “Social Machines,” was born, which describes a world with devices that have built-in social networking. These include, for example, vending machines that can tweet about themselves or can be “liked” in order to give product samples. They can easily be connected to rewards programs, or even operate a fundraising or charity outreach campaign. As this happens, the machines themselves become more valuable and can actively participate in solving thorny business problems, like how to get people who are in the neighborhood to come into a local store and buy something. Peter, who has a knack for turning a nice phrase, said, “Machines become a source of gravity or magnetism.”

Peter came out with another provocative statement during our discussion on the definition of “social machines.” He said that these machines, participating on social networks, will defy humans to recognize that they are indeed communicating with machines at all! Now, we aren’t (yet) talking about the rise of intelligent machines, SkyNet or the Singularity, but they do know how to communicate by following rules, and this is enough for us humans to anthropomorphize them, or simply neglect to realize that they are machines. This is totally normal and nothing to be concerned about. (How many of you name your car and speak to your mobile phone as it if was a person?)

Furthermore, it is this tendency of ours to give human characteristics to machines that will enable marketers and communicators to take advantage of the tremendous potential this new environment has for creating new relationships between brands and their key stakeholders. The objects themselves become actors — active participants — in the stories we are co-creating about our brands with key audiences.

So, what will be the biggest challenge for marketers in this field? According to Peter, it will first be understanding this environment. He said that we don’t usually think about machines as having a digital personality. We know, of course, all about their physical attributes, but once the data generated by these attributes are freed up and brought into the cloud, we have to figure out how to make that data useful, how to create platforms for sharing the stories it tells and how to encourage participation in these stories by multiple audiences.

I keep telling my students (I teach digital marketing topics to undergraduates and graduates in Paris, France), that the marketers of tomorrow will not only need to understand how to create, nurture and influence networks of people, they will also need to figure out how to market to “things,” and how to set an environment in place where “things” will market to other “things.” Obviously, we’ll need to develop some new skills sets here.

And the risks of this new environment? Privacy jumps to the front of the queue for me.  Peter describes a couple of scenarios: We receive notice from our house that someone has opened the front door, or that the boiler has stopped working. Even that the price of electricity just peaked, so we might want to turn down the air conditioner. All of this sounds ideal to us. But how about this: We receive notice from our house that our son is smoking pot in the bathroom. Good, right? But, the surveillance has just moved from our house watching other machines, to our house watching … us. It is a slippery slope.

My conversation with Peter whetted my appetite for his presentation at this year’s Digital Impact Conference. I think that communicators and marketers will get tremendous value from his session and his book as we try to figure out what trends and technologies are on the near horizon, and how we are going to deal with them. As he says in Chapter 1 of his book:

“The best part is that none of these examples are fantasies. They are all possible today. The technology necessary to make them real exists and is getting cheaper every year. But ironically, the framework for understanding how we can harness these technologies has nothing to do with technology at all. The path forward for the utopian visions of home automation and smart cities is based on something far more mundane. It is a force that has driven countless revolutions before it: the inherent need we humans have to communicate, share our worlds, help one another, and improve our collective lot in life. In a word, this new universe of possibility is based on everything becoming social.”

Elizabeth Albrycht, co-chair, PRSA 2013 Digital Impact Conference, has 20 years of experience in high technology public relations, and is an expert in digital communications and social media. Her extensive knowledge and understanding of these areas has been garnered over the past seven years as an independent consultant for European and U.S.-based clients.

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