Stories about robots are almost as ubiquitous as stories about President Trump, with a recent sample variously welcoming and rejecting the emergence of these artificial but humanlike entities.
There’s every good reason to talk about it. Artificial intelligence can already diagnose medical conditions, drive cars and write news stories. Some claim entire industries will be given over to automation in a matter of years, with half of today’s work activities gobbled up by 2055.
But these stories are conspicuous for one thing: their lack of any critical examination of whether or not robots should be brought into our lives at all.
Don’t get me wrong, as a communications professional I’m happy for computers to beat me at certain tasks. Keep the drudge work. Take aggregating data off my hands. But I’m uneasy around arguments of technological inevitability; the idea that automation is an unstoppable force we have no choice but to accept. I can’t help but think: where’s human intention gone?
The end-of-industry scenarios remain speculative, but clearly we’ve already experienced a transition in our economy that is rapidly changing the type and nature of our jobs. We see this most obviously in the shift to a digital world, where many of the challenges presented by automation are already playing out. Here, too, new technologies are often uncritically embraced.
I’m particularly mindful of this during World Digital Week, an event that celebrates digital technology from all over the world. It strikes me that if we can examine the impact of digital so far, we’ll be better prepared for the next frontier in automation, welcoming its possibilities, while protecting, nourishing and celebrating the best of our human capacities.
So, how can we summarise the impacts of digital?
As social creatures, we possess an innate tendency to seek connection with others. It’s as basic as our need for food, water and shelter. Digital platforms like email, Facebook and Twitter have created new social habitats for us to dwell in and form relationships. For some, these are entirely natural environments. More than one in three British 15-year olds spend at least six hours online a day, and social media has become the main source of news for 18-24-year olds.
When it comes to the communications industry and the spread of good ideas, digital technology has numerous upsides. We can listen to diverse individuals’ insights and opinions on issues we care about, tapping into a global community, not just a local one. We have access to first-person accounts of current events, helping us get closer to the conversation. We are able to scale up our communications strategies dramatically. The creative merits of our work are judged by everyone, and so creativity has become more meritocratic.
But there are elements of social media that may cause our industry more harm than good. The proliferation of fake news online is contributing to plummeting faith in mainstream media. We’re competing with content, much of which is trivial, derivative or unfounded, and fighting for limited space to be heard. We’re winding up in echo chambers, talking to those who already share our views and failing to convince a wider base. Meanwhile, the patterns of human interaction promoted by social media – liking, sharing, disliking – make it easier for people to disengage the more deliberative parts of their brain.
In other words, in its worst form, an over-reliance on digital sources makes us unempathetic and uncritical: two of the most vital human capacities.
With research showing a face-to-face request is 34 times more successful than an email, more traditional communications arenas, like events, still offer superior means of influence. Unless we use digital technology to enhance rather than replace face-to-face communications, we may lose our human connection. The real robots will come and we’ll accept their possibilities merely because they’re possible, not because they improve our fundamental need for emotional attachment. Ultimately, our communications campaigns will fail to resonate with the people (not robots) we’re trying to reach.
As a values shift takes place in society towards concepts such as authenticity and transparency, it’s vital we remain alert to our online and offline channels and the connections they offer.