AI Ads Are Coming for You

Advertisers know what you like

Key Takeaways

  • Artificial intelligence is increasingly being used to craft advertisements for internet users.
  • A recent essay claims using AI for advertising is "poisoning" society.
  • Some experts say using AI for ad purposes should be regulated.
Robot sitting on bench in front of robot billboard

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Artificial intelligence (AI) may be targeting you through internet advertising. 

Companies are increasingly using AI to craft and aim ads for users. A new essay in The Atlantic argues that the use of AI for advertising is "poisoning" society, and some experts agree that there are reasons for concern.

"Data getting in the hands of the wrong people can cause personal harm to real people," AI expert Sameer Maskey told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Mind Control?

Ayad Akhtar, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, recently attacked the practice of AI advertising in his essay in The Atlantic, suggesting the things we like are no longer up to us but are instead chosen for us so companies can profit.

The ad industry uses AI to target customers better, Heena Purohit, head of IBM Watson’s AI services, told Lifewire. Ads are personalized using user data such as demographics, interests, buying history, or behavior patterns to identify more relevant ads for the user. AI also uses pattern recognition by combing through data to identify an audience for ads. 

"In the advertising technology industry, AI is not just a buzzword," Purohit said. "For many AdTech providers, data or more enriched insights create a competitive advantage."

Purohit said that AI ad companies are sensitive to the issue of data privacy. 

"Users want the opportunity to control how their data is being collected and used," Purohit added. "We're seeing companies adapt to this changing consumer behavior. From major browsers blocking third-party cookies to smartphone manufacturers such as Apple explicitly asking users to opt-in to data sharing, these changes will make it easier for users to control their data."

Is Regulation the Answer?

Some observers say the use of AI for ad purposes should be regulated. However, the overall advertising industry is already regulated by several federal statutes, including the FTC Act of 1914, which prohibits unfair and deceptive advertising, noted Will Griffin, chief ethics officer at AI company Hypergiant, in an email interview with Lifewire. 

"As the pace of introducing AI technologies into advertising accelerates, substituting human judgment with algorithms raises questions as to how these old laws should be applied in the modern technology context," he said. "Further regulation is inevitable; the only question is how much havoc will be wreaked in the meantime."

"Data getting in the hands of the wrong people can cause personal harm to real people."

Emad Hasan, CEO of Retina AI and former head of data analytics at Facebook and Paypal, called for regulations that provide "a clear level of transparency on why somebody is seeing certain ads." He told Lifewire that "it should be easy to opt-out of any ads that don't feel relevant."

AI advertising technology has tradeoffs for users, Maskey told Lifewire. If users are looking for information on a specific service, say hair salons or restaurants in a particular location, they might be targeted by ads from vendors providing said services in their same neighborhood of preference. 

"This is an example of good AI advertising technology enabling more personalized consumer experiences," Maskey said.

On the other hand, the downside of using AI is users can be deluged with ads. AI ads also raise questions about the data privacy of users, Maskey said. 

"After all, not all companies deploying AI-powered advertising technologies are abiding by standard sets of protocols and guidelines around how much and what type of data gathering is ethical," he added. 

So, how do you know if AI ads are targeting you? It's often tough to detect, but reading the terms and conditions of websites you use is a good start. 

"AI in advertising is all based on data," Maskey said. "the more consumers and users make efforts to understand where they can play an active role in managing the flow of their behavioral and transactional data, the less they are vulnerable to negative influence."

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