TechMunch: AI and the art of thinking for a living

One of my favourite memories of university (of those fit to share anyway) was of a mural on the wall of the College of Arts & Sciences (my department of study) which (re)assured me that ‘A Liberal Arts degree is insurance against when the robots take all the boring jobs’. Beyond a vague irritation when visiting Science majors suggested our primary course of study should be learning to say the phrase ‘would you like fries with that?’, I doubt I ever questioned back then whether my career prospects were doomed to eventual obsolescence – and nor do I do so today.

Like manufacturing, automotive, healthcare, logistics and many more, the communications industry has seen a lot of change in recent years – much of it brought on by the effects of new technology. In the span of my career alone, we’ve gone from physical media kits, to phone calls, to emails, to many media pitches today happening over a social medium of choice. Our external audience has shifted from print media to online to social; and our decision-maker has moved from solely Marketing/Comms to pretty much every member of the C-suite. And there isn’t simply isn’t enough time in the day to discuss all the corresponding changes in the media landscape…

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the latest technology trend driving change across the world and it’s unlikely any industry will remain unaffected; communications included. Leading UK news agency Press Association recently announced it would be using AI to fill the gap left by shrinking editorial teams; partnering with a news automation specialist to create 30,000 localised news reports every month. In our own world of public relations, there’s definitely room to replace repetitive, time-consuming tasks such as creating media lists, compiling evaluation reports or sending out press releases, while chatbots could potentially take on a major role in media relations or social media channel management.

But that isn’t to say that I think the robots are coming for our jobs just yet – too much of what we do as communications consultants still requires uniquely human characteristics and social skills.

Algorithms, efficient and accurate as they are for problem solving, are driven largely by the parameters of a defined task and the specific data sets available; flexing and adapting them to changeable or volatile circumstances requires more time and data than most comms situations have to spare. When it comes to decision-making – particularly on limited or new information, as is often the case – human intuition is often still a better indicator than sheer calculation and probability alone. And, for now at least, humans definitely have the upper hand when it comes to creative, unorthodox thinking – quite literally ‘thinking out of the box’.

Most of all, for all their speed and complex capabilities, machines have yet to evolve soft skills. As we know from the Turing test, machines can exhibit human-like behavior – indistinguishable in many cases from the ‘real thing’; but dealing with other people (clients, coworkers or, well, anyone at all) involves emotional intelligence, empathy, listening, inclusion, sensitivity, anticipation, social chemistry and compromise, among other things. Interestingly, many Hollywood versions of AI spend most of the length of their respective movies pondering these very attributes, which suggests we still consider them the most valuable ones a machine could hope to develop some day.

So, of course, there is a place for AI in the communications industry – and it’s alongside the humans rather than in place of them. AI can improve speed, accuracy and processes; and we should absolutely embrace the ways in which it can augment human thinking with superior access to information, freeing us to do what we do best and enjoy most – bringing exciting ideas to life.

If the robots are coming for the boring jobs, I for one am happy to let them have them.

Lakshmi Rajendran, Associate Director, Technology