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Developing an Ethical Framework for AI in Advertising: A Q&A with Sheri Bachstein

March 09, 2021
Sheri Bachstein, Global Head of Watson Advertising and The Weather Company

The Interactive Advertising Bureau recently announced a new AI Standards Working Group co-chaired by IBM with the edict of providing the marketing and advertising industry the proper roadmap for...

The Interactive Advertising Bureau recently announced a new AI Standards Working Group co-chaired by IBM with the edict of providing the marketing and advertising industry the proper roadmap for appropriately scaling artificial intelligence across the ecosystem. To get a better understanding of AI’s role in creating a sustainable, technology-centric future for the advertising industry, IBM Chief Storyteller James Dennin recently sat down with Sheri Bachstein, Global Head of Watson Advertising and The Weather Company. The transcript below has been lightly edited. 

1. IAB recently announced a new working group devoted to developing industry standards for the use of AI in advertising? What is the goal of this working group and why is it important for advertisers to be investing resources in this area right now? 

The IAB has a long history of advancing standards to help the entire industry of publishers, advertisers and ad tech companies thrive in a constantly shifting environment. Through work like Project Rearc, they have also been a leader in bringing the industry together to figure out how marketers are going to respond to the phase-out of the third-party cookie and other identifiers that will seriously disrupt the traditional infrastructure that digital advertisers have relied on for decades.

At IBM, we believe that AI will be foundational in the post-cookie world. We have seen time and time again how AI and its ability to harness data, to predict, and to augment human abilities has been crucial to helping industries thrive during periods of intense disruption. But consumers are rightfully wary: Algorithms can internalize and perpetuate subconscious bias, and this transformational technology needs to be brought to market, at scale, in a way that doesn’t feel invasive to the consumer. 

IAB’s Artificial Intelligence Use Cases and Best Practices for Marketing report will help ensure that ethical and accountable AI standards will be adopted industry-wide. By joining the AI Standards Working Group as co-chair, we can continue to bring our expertise in applied and ethical AI, while also providing the advertising ecosystem a roadmap for building a sustainable future moving forward. 

2. IBM has a long history of technical accomplishments in AI. What experience is IBM bringing to this working group? Why is a technologist’s perspective such an important part of building an ethical framework for AI?

At IBM we are committed to not only helping the advertising industry use AI to drive business results, but also making sure that they adopt AI responsibly. This can be seen across the greater business landscape and within unique verticals where we’ve leveraged AI to disrupt industries. 

A particular example that comes to mind is HSBC’s partnership IBM Watson and EquBot to launch AiPEX, the first fully AI-driven index that uncovers new investment opportunities by ingesting and learning from vast amounts of publicly available and continuously generated data. 

With this edict of being a category leader, it’s imperative that we develop ethical principles that are built into the products themselves and guide decision making as products are brought to market. Ethical AI cannot be an afterthought. We have seen how AI can internalize bias and how its use can lead to unforeseen consequences. To earn and keep your customers’ trust, you need to be using AI that has been developed and deployed within a sound ethical framework from day one. And it’s important to articulate that framework and publicize it to drive accountability.

Advertising has been slower than other industries in adopting AI, but we don’t expect that to be the case for long. That’s why we are taking on a leadership role. As AI is increasingly applied to this market, members of the ecosystem large and small can ensure that it is being applied in a way that isn’t alienating or taking advantage of users in any way. 

3. Why form this partnership now? What about the current landscape has made a working group focused on ethical AI and advertising more imperative?

There is no question that the digital advertising industry is at a major inflection point as companies respond to increasing privacy regulation. Companies that own major web browsers like Google are no longer going to let companies sell ads based on behavioral tracking, and over the last two years the “cookie” that advertisers have traditionally relied on to track who saw their ads is slowly being phased out. For more than two decades, the cookie has been a critical part of online advertising’s infrastructure. There will need to be new solutions that don’t rely on identifying individuals to serve and track the performance of online ad campaigns. 

We believe that AI will be advertising’s new foundational technology going forward – going well beyond its use today which is primarily the buying and selling of ads. AI can make use of anonymized data to serve relevant ads, it can assemble and serve different creative that is more likely to be compelling with different audiences, and it can help companies make sense of vastly larger sets of data to help them assess and predict trends. 

As we work to build AI into the foundation of digital advertising and scale it, we will need to ask the questions:  Are we doing so in a way that preserves user privacy? That avoids internalized bias? That drives engagement using relevance and by serving ads that consumers are actually interested in seeing? We are confident the answers to all those questions can be yes. 

You can read more about IAB’s working group and check out the new Artificial Intelligence Use Cases and Best Practices for Marketing report here.

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