This article is derived from a TEDx Talk delivered by Guto Harri on November 14, 2018.
If you are reading this you probably love your job. You’re in comms and you are paid to be thoughtful, creative, charming and well-informed. A good boss will have empowered you to think outside the box, go against the grain, exercise judgment but take calculated risks to be as original and impactful as possible. Meanwhile, you’re surrounded by bright, ambitious and energetic people who play as well as work hard. Lucky you.
Artificial intelligence poses little threat to our industry – but it provides plenty of opportunities, not least because it will wreak havoc in some sectors and bring mind-blowing breakthroughs in others. One of the most moderate recent estimates of potential job losses puts the figure at 66 million across the OECD. Another suggests 35% of UK jobs are in trouble. The Governor of the Bank of England described its impact as “merciless”.
No wonder – therefore – that fear is the dominant sentiment uncovered in a survey commissioned by Hanover Communications. 21% of people worry that AI will cause unemployment, while 15% fear that it will wipe out the human race. 46% fear the long-term implications of AI over the long-term implications of Brexit.
Yet the roles most at risk seem to be the most tedious, repetitive task that leave us humans cold, or anxious, unfulfilled and possibly depressed. And the prospect of delegating those to robots or machines could be a good thing – if we handle the challenge well.
Just as machines took over some of the back-breaking, health-destroying jobs of old, artificial intelligence now offers the prospect of ending the relative misery of human beings doing jobs that are monotonous, mundane or mindless.
This applies to high-end well-paid jobs as much as any. Why should a lawyer be propped-up by cocoa and caffeine in the early hours, far from family or friends trawling through huge documents for niggly flaws that a computer programme could spot in seconds. We will always need lawyers but don’t we want them for their wisdom, judgment, compassion and care rather than excruciating thoroughness?
What’s critical is for companies to communicate a clear, confident and convincing narrative about their AI plans. Our research suggests most have some catching up to do. 33% of respondents felt individually prepared for the so-called 4th industrial revolution only 24% felt their employer was ready.
Companies need to drive the discourse about the benefits of responsible and ethical uses of AI – and at the heart of all this is its capacity to play to our strengths as human beings.
The risk is real. Companies that take a reactive stance can find their progress side-tracked by established biases against the technology. Companies need to drive the discourse about the benefits of responsible and ethical uses of AI – and at the heart of all this is its capacity to play to our strengths as human beings.
Virtual assistants can scan reams of data and tell you where you’re meeting a friend for lunch, or who wrote the lyrics to a largely-forgotten song. But ask them questions that human beings can’t agree on, and they can’t perform. I recently delivered a talk on AI at TEDxCardiffUniversity, where I referenced a live conversation with a virtual assistant:
‘Is my daughter beautiful?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that.’
‘Should I lie to my boss?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know what you should do.’
‘Does God exist?’
‘That’s a topic for another day, and another assistant.’
Beauty, morality and spirituality are among the three most meaningful things in life. Yet the virtual assistant was at a loss for words. It was not to blame, not being programmed to give answers to such questions. But it served as a reminder that we still beat machines when it comes intelligence beyond what can be learned by the book.
It’s this humanity that current conversations about AI need to focus on, not the fear-mongering tales of robot overlords or legions of cheap labour. As communicators, we have a responsibility to talk about AI in a positive way, to help ease the way for its assimilation into everyday life. Harnessing AI will allow us to focus on the more human aspects of jobs. Society needs to embrace machines, seeing them as friends, not foes.
To do this, we need to be involved at the start of AI implementation processes. A company that’s adopting AI needs to have a strategic plan ready for how to communicate what they’re doing to regulators, stakeholders, staff and the public. These are currently exciting times for artificial intelligence, and companies that can capitalise on it best are the ones with communicators driving the debate.