“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak.” Those are the first words in art critic John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing. We see the power of images in our world every day, so it makes a lot of sense that significant amounts of smart money in advertising and marketing is being spent on visual recognition technologies. 

Think about your recollection of famous people and world events; an associated image is the most common thing that springs to mind. Most of us probably see Marilyn Monroe in that iconic white dress before we even think of the name of the movie that image comes from: ‘The Seven Year Itch.' It's why companies spend billions of dollars a year meticulously pimping and preening their brand image, from their merchandising collateral, through to staff uniforms and brand logos. 

AI drives visual recognition software. The software can identify and categorise images, still and video, in a way that will increasingly come to resemble what we have now with the text-based internet search engines. It's the next step away from the internet as we currently know it to a far more all-encompassing thing that will include even more data from images, as well as the Internet of Things devices.  

At an elementary level, you will be able to watch a video, let's say a clip of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, and then search the images in the clip, like the famous white dress, and immediately receive information on where you can buy that dress, for example.  

As consumers, we respond instinctively to the images we see. That's why social media platforms like Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat are so beloved by marketers. All three platforms are dominated by visual imagery. According to one statistic, something like 95 million photos and videos are shared on Instagram a day, and over 40 billion photos and videos have been posted on Instagram since it started. The other two major visual social media platforms would register similar types of numbers. 

Generally, images speak in a more direct, less ambiguous way to consumers than words. Get the image right, and it’s a direct hit to the visual cortex of the consumer, which marketers hope means a direct line to the consumer’s credit card.

The likes of IBM, Google and Facebook (which owns Instagram) are all working on applying artificial intelligence to visual recognition software as part of the broader push into computer vision. Because so much shopping involves visual browsing on the internet, at least as part of the initial research phase, visual recognition technology is seen as a massively valuable potential tool that marketers can use to hook in consumers at the earliest stage of the buying process.  

Another driving force in the rise of visual recognition technologies and the general importance of visual imagery is that commerce has been globalised. English might still be regarded as the international language of business, but that’s being challenged by Chinese, as well as Arabic and Spanish in other parts of the world. However, visual communication to a large extent crosses these boundaries. A LOL emoji, like McDonald’s golden arches, is recognised and easily comprehended the world over. It’s significant that 80% of Instagram’s users, for example, are from outside of the US. 

The complex business of business will still require the technical nuances of the written word, but more and more the business of selling things will rely on the power of visuals.