Elephant in the Parking Lot

What do these two people have in common:  the Creative Director of an advertising agency in Richmond, Virginia and an Artificial Intelligence researcher at the University of Cambridge, England?   I met a PhD AI researcher at Cambridge 14 years ago whose heart would sing with warm appreciation if she saw this practical application of her specialty in this recent TV “elephant” commercial.


What the Creative Director and the AI theorist share in common, from two very different perspectives, is knowing what ”information ” means and understanding its power to move us.

I remember asking the theorist to give me a concise definition of information.  She quickly said: “an elephant in a parking lot—two elements.”  She went on to explain that, to us in an urban setting, an elephant does not belong in a parking lot any more than a parking lot belongs deep inside a pristine jungle to a native inhabitant.  “This is an example of a ‘signal to noise’ pattern, she said, where the elephant is the ‘signal’ and the parking lot setting is the ‘noise,’ or neutral background we expect based on our everyday experience.  Our brains evolved to be pattern recognizing/creating organs for survival and made humans smart along the way; we are using this same idea to make machines smart.”

The Creative Director of the Richmond agency used this very same AI information principle to get our attention in a very dramatic way.  The advertising agency not only used an elephant in their TV spot as the key creative element to launch a new business, they also used “elephant” as the branded name for a new company:  The Elephant Insurance Company.

What would the Creative Director and AI researcher say to each other if they met?  One creates sales and the other creates smart machines to sell.


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