AI-driven Lexus ad pulls at viewers’ heartstrings

A teary-eyed Lexus Takumi Master Craftsman bids farewell to his beloved work of art, a new Lexus ES.  The car makes a short journey along a picturesque coastline and arrives at a sinister-looking testing centre.  Heart in his mouth, the man watches on TV as the car undergoes a crash test.  Seconds before crashing into the back of a truck, the car grinds to a halt.  The automatic braking system has passed the test.  To the sound of a heartbeat, the words flash across the screen: The new Lexus ES.  Driven by Intuition.

The ad is a beautiful marriage of the human and the artificial, the perfect symbol of the union that produced this ad.  Directed by award-winning Kevin Macdonald, this is the first advert ever to have been entirely scripted by AI.  Lexus’ creative agency, The&Partnership London, worked with Visual Voice and IBM Watson to carry out a machine learning process based on 15 years’ worth of data from past car and luxury adverts, with a focus on creativity and originality.  Lexus also used emotional intelligence data from Unruly to create an ad that people would respond to on a deeper level.  Finally, the AI was given a crash course on intuition by MindX, at the University of New South Wales in Australia.  The proposed AI scripts were given additional preference the more closely they aligned with Lexus’ brand guidelines.

Is AI encroaching on the creative space?

For years, the one upper hand that humans had over technology was the ability to feel – and exploit – emotion.  But the rising importance of affective AI is already clear in the algorithms that power Facebook ads, Alexa’s “goodnight”s and the up-and-coming companion robots.

As director Kevin Macdonald noted, the incredible part about this advertisement is how emotionally focused it was, despite having a machine for a protagonist. He stated, “The fact the AI gave a fellow machine sentience, placed it in a sort of combat situation, and then had it escaping into the sunset was such an emotional response from what is essentially a digital platform.  The charmingly simplistic way the AI wrote the story was both fascinating in its interpretation of human emotion, and yet still unexpected enough to give the film a clearly non-human edge.”  Although it’s all based on algorithms and reams of data, the fact that an AI-created ad chose to feature a machine as a protagonist can’t help make us feel vaguely uneasy, as if the machine knew what it was doing.

Alex Newland of Visual Voice stated, “We believe this project moves AI-generated content into the beginnings of true, stand-alone creative merit.”  But at the same time, Visual Voice cautioned against giving the AI too much credit for autonomy and self-awareness, reminding viewers that all the AI had done was churn through data to produce a script that matched the criteria it was given.  The only thing this proves is that AI will spit out results based on the data it’s fed – another reason to be wary of biased data.

Dave Bedwood of The&Partnership, who was expecting to help the AI with the scriptwriting process, instead found that the AI “took over and wrote the whole script: a machine telling the story of a machine coming to life.”  Every detail, from the fact of the engineer being a “father figure” to the placement of the trees and the enhanced audio, had a footnote explaining the data points that led to the decision.  The resulting script doesn’t make 100% sense – it’s not clear why a crash test would be broadcast on a news report, as is shown in the ad – but it’s definitely an ad that people will remember, and that’s what interests Lexus.

Will AI replace humans in creative roles?

Despite some experts saying the danger is not so drastic, the question on everybody’s mind since AI started advancing so quickly in recent years is still whether it will one day take over.  If the Lexus ad is any indication, we can rest easy: AI isn’t quite there yet.  AI was able to write the script but it required hours and hours of human input, and a human director to bring the script to life.  This interplay between human and machine mirrors the new Lexus: which is not a self-driving car, but definitely a smart one, with AI-based automatic braking, temperature control, built-in hazard recognition and driver alerts for potential accidents.  The idea is to form a partnership, where AI can inform and enhance human projects.

Still, it would appear AI is well on its way to mastering the art of understanding human emotions – or at least, understanding them well enough to toy with them.  Where we once believed AI will function only as a lower-level grunt worker, taking away the simple tasks so humans can focus more on the creative ones, perhaps authors and screenwriters will be part of the group that needs to rethink their career path.