Computer Vision and Beyond From Cannes: How AI Invaded Marketing's Biggest Get-together This Year

As the CES is to the consumer electronics industry, the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is to the marketing world. Both are sprawling annual expos/conventions that attendees love to complain about—mostly for their overwhelming and exhausting excesses.

But just as CES helps signal where consumer tech is headed, Cannes continues to function as an essential barometer of how the marketing world is deploying new technologies in often unexpected and creative ways. And in that regard, the Cannes Lions, that just wrapped up in the south of France on June 24th, served up another similarity to January’s CES in Las Vegas: Some of the coolest, most engaging tech on display was powered by artificial intelligence (AI), with a particular focus on computer vision.

The thing to remember about the Cannes Lions is that brands and agencies attend with the hopes of winning accolades and attracting (and poaching) A-list industry talent—awards ceremonies that stretch over multiple nights are at the heart of the week-long event—and so work shown here is often highly experimental and socially conscious. In that sense, there’s a meta-marketing aspect to Cannes—making it a sort of global competition for marketers to market just how forward-thinking, progressive, and tech-savvy they are. And this year, more than ever, major players showed off AI projects to draw attention to their organizational brilliance.

Even if you were one of the estimated 40,000 Cannes festivalgoers, there’s a good chance you missed some, or all, of the key AI developments and discussions. So here’s your need-to-know shortlist:

A chinese tech conglomerate is deploying computer vision to help find missing kids


Tencent QQ, the instant messaging service from Chinese tech giant Tencent, took home a Cannes Gold Lions Award for a project called QQ Alert: Hope Never Dies. The app-within-an-app, according to the QQ case study, uses computer vision and deep learning to absorb “the transformation pattern of facial features” over time. QQ has nearly 900 million monthly active users, and by mobilizing that user base, QQ Alert has helped reunite 176 missing children using the AI-powered facial recognition/aging software.

Marketing takeaway: think of qq alert in the same way that you might think of facebook’s safety check—a way for a social media conglomerate to market itself as more caring and human.

AI-powered ‘digital humans’ are coming to serve you


An Auckland-based company called Soul Machines took to Cannes to demonstrate its “digital humans”—basically, extremely lifelike AI-powered avatars (on flat-screen displays) that can react with uncannily human facial reactions to actual humans standing in front of them. In a demo session captured by, Soul Machines CEO Mark Sagar—a computer scientist and CGI expert, who has worked on films including Avatar and King Kong—showed off a virtual baby girl to Jordan Bitterman, the CMO of The Weather Company, which is part of IBM’s Watson Group. “She can see my face. She’s responding to me,” Sagar explained to Bitterman. “She’s got her own emotional models.”

Marketing takeaway: soul machines’ sagar also demoed “digital humans” that are being created to serve in customer service capacities. think of them as the next generation of bots: algorithms with faces that will soon be deployed by brands that want to project empathy.

Pinterest is putting a big bet on computer vision-enabled search


For some Cannes attendees, the showy demos by various brands and tech companies are a sort of sideshow to multiple nights of Cannes Lions awards ceremonies. But for other attendees, they’re the main attraction—because they help make clear where various global players are making their biggest bets.

For Pinterest, it’s all about computer vision-powered visual search, as shown off in its elaborate temporary home on Carlton Pier at the beach. Pinterest invited festivalgoers to test out the beta Pinterest Lens app, which allows users to snap photos of objects around them using their smartphones—and then instantly find similar objects online. As Pinterest President Tim Kendall told Business Insider at the Lens villa, “We think it’s how discovery is going to increasingly be driven on the phone. We think it’s going to be image-driven.”

Marketing takeaway: pinterest has been hyping lens for months, but the accessible, hands-on demo at cannes was something of a coming out party for the technology among the marketing set. if lens becomes a big deal, there’s a good chance that major brand investment that was sparked by a cannes demo will have played a role.

Human creative types debate the impact of AI


There are always countless panels large and small throughout Cannes—but AI was among the topics that rated a main-stage discussion this year at the festival’s most prestigious venue: the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès.

Kicking off Cannes Week, Isobar Global CEO Jean Lin and Tencent AI Lab Director Wei “Vincent” Liu examined AI as a “game-changer” in a panel moderated by Fortune Magazine’s Adam Lashinsky.

While Liu talked about how AI has helped power products that include “pay-with-your-face” and “search-with-your-voice” capabilities, Lin made the point that, “The power of being human lies in empathy—something that cannot be automated or outsourced.”

Marketing takeaway: for his part, lashinsky, in a fortune post summing up his panelists’ “upbeat” take on ai, summed it all up: “ai is invading advertising and marketing too, and in exciting ways…. face recognition, for example, might help marketers better target customers,” and his panelists suggested that ai “will take over repetitive tasks while leaving the truly creative work to humans.”

Using computer vision to help alzheimer’s sufferers


If there’s any doubt Chinese tech firms are investing heavily to explore the creative applications of AI, Baidu, the Google of China, was on hand to touchingly dispel it in the health portion of the festival, with its beta project “Know You Again.”

One of the most emotionally painful and challenging aspects of Alzheimer’s is the tendency of the disease to diminish the ability to recognize faces—even those of loved ones. Baidu partnered with Alzheimer’s Disease China to create special electronic glasses, powered by a computer vision algorithm, that gently remind the wearer of the identity of the person in their field of vision—for instance (as shown in a “Know You Again” demo video), “your grandson, Ming Ming,” or “your son-in-law, Zhi Gang.”

Marketing takeaway: the project, which took home a silver cannes lion, was not only arguably the most poignant illustration at cannes of how computer vision is set to transform our lives—right to the very end—but a way for baidu to market its compassion as an organization.

An AI platform funded by human modesty?

And finally, Publicis Groupe, the Paris-based multinational advertising firm, made a splash at Cannes by announcing that it would skip Cannes next year—and, more shockingly, abstain from trying to win major industry awards, including Cannes Lions. Why? To save money that it says it will put toward Marcel, its AI platform.

Will this turn out to be an intelligent way to promote Publicis Groupe’s AI expertise? Stay tuned.

Marketing takeaway: publicis groupe wants the marketing world to know it’s so serious about ai that it is willing to forgo the glamour of cannes to focus on it.

Illustrations by Eric Nyffeler