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Why AI won’t replace your PR department anytime soon

Will AI replace your PR department? Well, not anytime soon — if we’re talking about the singularity that most people fear.

Most animals have some sort of capacity for communication. For animals with a higher degree of sentience, communication can be connected to external conceptualisations; a tribe of monkeys could have a distinct and distinguishable sound for “danger approaching”, for instance. This is an advanced form of semiotics where the sounds themselves signifies an abstract meaning. However, about 75,000 years ago, humans surpassed this level (and then some!) in a relatively short evolutionary timespan. We moved on from audible communication to using human language, a skill that differentiates us from all other life forms on our planet.

In this in-depth conversation, the linguist Noam Chomsky explains why language is unique to humans:

It’s important to understand the vast difference between a monkey’s use of distinct sounds and human language. Or, more accurately — just how little we understand about this difference.

  • We don’t know how or why we developed our skill for human language so quickly.
  • We don’t know how and why it became so prevalent in presumably all hominids at the time.

In short, we don’t know how the skill of human language evolved — only that it did. And it doesn’t seem likely that language skill was selected over enough generations to produce such a fast biological result. There are other complex and fascinating products of evolution, like the eye. But in nature, eyes have been around for many millions of years and they have developed into thousands and thousands of different varieties.

When it comes to languages, we’re stuck with a scientific sample of one — humans.

One interesting theory suggests a mutation in which a specific breed of hominids, our early ape-like ancestors, suffered from a development malfunction in which the infant hominid brain just kept on developing and developing. According to the theory, human beings are overgrown “ape children”. This would, at least partially, explain our more juvenile features (“neoteny“), the lack of fur, and our weaker bodies. More importantly, it would explain why our brain suddenly grew many magnitudes its prior capacity:

“For decades scientists have noted that mature humans physically resemble immature chimps — we, too, have small jaws, flat faces and sparse body hair. The retention of juvenile features, called neoteny in evolutionary biology, is especially apparent in domesticated animals—thanks to human preferences, many dog breeds have puppy features such as floppy ears, short snouts and large eyes. Now genetic evidence suggests that neoteny could help explain why humans are so radically different from chimpanzees, even though both species share most of the same genes and split apart only about six million years ago, a short time in evolutionary terms.”

It’s difficult to scientifically test how human language is affecting our brains. It’s possible that inner dialogue (internal language use) is closely connected to complex phenomena like consciousness.

There’s a popular expression that states that we know more about the surface of the moon than we know of the floor of the sea. Well, we’re closer to knowing about what’s going on in our oceans than we are to mapping out a cluster of biological neurons to understand how they produce consciousness — and human language. Decoding the human brain is necessary for any attempts at creating an AI capable of replacing human language.

The famous Turing test is a sentiment to this effect:

Are we able to produce a talking machine able to trick a human being? Despite it being a challenge, such a task is miniscule compared to the challenge of constructing a machine that use language the way we humans started using it about 75,000 years ago.

We have mapped out the human genome, but we’re still far from figuring out how it all works. Even at exponential growth, we might be at least 200-500 years away from being able to map out (and understand) the neural workings of a human brain. A competing hypothesis is that humanity will venture far into transhumanism (humans augmented through technology), a sort of cybernetic renaissance, long before we are able to successfully decode human language through AI. We will master genetic engineering and create a human API long before we are able to construct a machine able to use human language in a sentient manner.

So, will artificial intelligence replace your communication department?

The answer seems to be a definite “no” if we by AI mean achieving sentience. Such AI capabilities would require the technological singularity — which comes with its own set of disturbing challenges (and keeping our jobs is not one of them):

Futurist Ray Kurzweil have famously predicted that the singularity will occur in 2045 and others have argued statistically that this might be “optimistic” and that it should occur 2060-65 ± 10 years (later specified to 2062 ± 8 years). However, this is where we lose full control over technological advancements in a way that prohibits us from ever going back which is not to guarantee sentient computers able to successfully communicate with humans. Which is actually scarier, I think.

Now, I’m being slightly unfair here. There’s a vast difference between the AI singularity (which is the one the public typically fear) and what’s known as Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI). Eleonora Terzi, whose dissertation in MA, Public Relations, Advertising and Applied Communication is focused on AI in PR, writes:

“… we are currently living in the age of Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI): all the tools and instruments that have been successfully developed so far belong to a stage of weak AI. AI that matches human capabilities – or even surpasses them – is a long way from us, and it is pure speculation so far. Nonetheless, even at this stage, AI has already started making its impact on a lot of industries – such as financial services, law, healthcare – and PR is no exception.

Two years ago, the CIPR’s Humans Still Needed study found that 12% of a PR practitioner’s total skills (out of 52 skills) could be complemented or replaced by AI today, with a prediction that this could climb to 38% within five years.”

And Jean Valin Hon FCIPR, Principal of Valin Strategic Communications, writes:

“AI is about to massively change our lives. The public relations profession needs to keep up. We need more experience with these tools and more critical reviews to learn how best to use them and their limitations. Regardless of the tasks and skills that can be automated or benefit from AI, human intervention, editing, sensitivity, emotional intelligence, applying good judgement and ethics will always be needed.”

For the next 20 years, I would argue that the main technological drivers for changing your communications department will be a combination of several impactful technological trends:

In summary: It’s not that your communication department will be replaced by ANI (weak AI) per se, but that fewer of communicators will be needed to perform complex tasks efficiently.

Kerry Sheehan, chair of the AIinPR Panel, writes:

“Be it through improved automation and AI-enabled tools for many areas including, media monitoring, social mapping and listening, stakeholder management, programme and project management, automated content for a range of internal and external purposes, including moving business, organisations and brands towards more owned content and becoming their own news publishers, or virtual, conversational assistants, chatbots or curators. […]

It goes without saying where the media goes, PR must keep up.”

Read also: Why the AI singularity is still so far away

Photo by Arseny Togulev on Unsplash.


Avatar of Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Communication Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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