Reactive Robotics and Your Love/Hate Relationship with Brands

I attended an event at Swissnex the other night where robotics researchers Oussama Khatib from Stanford AI Labs and Aude Billard from the Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory at the Ecole Polytechnique Féderalé de Lausanne displayed the latest in their research into reactive robotics. I came away convinced that once our machines are able to learn and respond to changes in their environments, it will be us who will have to learn to adapt to a whole new world in which certain brands that we rely on for affirmation or association may disappear as they lose relevance in a reactive robotic world.

I'm talking about our machines: Our cars, our appliances, and our tools. The things we currently command but which are going to be literally taken out of our hands.

The Google self-driving car is perhaps the most obvious. Almost every automaker is heavily invested in developing highly sophisticated, reactive vehicles. California lawmakers just passed a bill making driverless cars legal on the states highways, and as I write this it simply awaits the signature of Governor Jerry Brown before the robots start coursing that picturesque stretch of 280 between Sand Hill Road and Los Altos Hills.

But so what? Why should it matter to us if we no longer drive our own cars? Travel will be safer and more efficient. We'll be able to either spend more time with our friends and families, or working (increased efficiency, yes!), or checking our Pinterest boards – our choice since we no longer need to worry about operating the vehicle. Perhaps advertisers could purchase time on our windscreens to post ads. I think we need to see more ads, don't you?

Well, think of it this way: What happens when the "Ultimate Driving Machine" is no longer driven by the "Ultimate Driver?" In a world of logically reactive robotic vehicles, there's no room for excessive speed. No need for you to experience superior road handling. The thrill of self-directed acceleration will be gone. And so, by extension, will the BMW brand and the associations we currently have with it be radically altered.

This will be a world where the satisfaction of using the Swiffer to show off your superlative housekeeping skills has vanished, because Roomba takes care of all that, and finishes it off with a spritz of Fabreze. But what happens when your Roomba dies? I foresee an entire industry devoted to the care of robotic pets that do our chores and keep our laps warm, and to their funeral arrangements once it's finally time for them to go to that giant motherboard in the sky.

Or what if you grow to hate Siri so much you want to fire her? Remember, she knows everything about you, and could potentially cause some problems should you wish to run for public office somewhere down the line.

Yes, the next generation of robotics is not only going to change our lives, it's going to affect the core identities of certain brands, upending decades, even a century's work in some cases, of building brand identity and brand value. Because as robotics become commonplace, the associations and experiences that contribute to the image we have of those brands will cease to be relevant. It's a colossal challenge for those brands, and they'd better start thinking about how to regain that relevance before they find themselves in reactive mode.


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