ROBOT COMMS: What public sector comms people need to know about artificial intelligence

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There’s this amazing clip from late 1970s Blue Peter where the presenters are demonstrating the first commercial mobile phone.

John Noakes stays in the studio while Peter Purves heads into the Blue Peter garden and whips out from under his mac an over the shoulder plastic phone. You can tell the smugness in his voice as he dials his colleague.

Ladies and gentlemen, the mobile phone.

And so, Artificial Intelligence – or AI – will become as normal as texting or taking a selfie is now. This is not sci-fi fantasy but what is happening today. Just less than four million Google Home and Amazon Alexa devices have been sold in the UK, researchers voicebot.ai say. By far the largest number in Europe.

But, what is Artificial Intelligence?

In 2018, most people don’t know what Artificial Intelligence is. But what they do know is it sounds scary. In a nutshell, they are computers that learn. The dictionary definition is computer systems that can complete tasks that normally require human intelligence such as visual recognition, speech recognition and decision making.

To get you started, I’d suggest taking six minutes to watch the HubSpot animation that makes it as Blue Peter as possible without a trip into the Italian Sunken Garden:

Artificial Intelligence can be very scary, can’t it?

AI at home is still the preserve of early adoptors. My video skills colleague Steven has had one for months. When he asks Google to do something it often even does the thing he’s asked it to do.

Me? I’m in several camps. I want to know more as it is going to shape the world we live in but I’m dubious. I’m not thrilled by the idea of a swarm of killer drones. I’m not that thrilled that the top search for military drones is the Chinese mail-order giant Alibaba. Robotics researcher Peter Haas in his Ted Talk talks about the lack of ethics in the field.

Me? I’m more struck by the rather excellent @internetofshit that talks RTs accounts of Teslas being stranded in the desert as they can only re-start with a mobile phone signal. Or the lift that can’t be used because of a system update.

In that context, AI is very, very scary indeed. But that’s not where AI is right now.

Artificial Intelligence is here, baby. Right here

Of course, its not all swarms of drones with machine guns.  In fact. It’s hardly that at all. Former CIPR President Stephen Waddington has been leading some superb work to look at where AI is in PR. I simply cannot recommend his work enough.

Through the #AIinPR project, Stephen and around 20 volunteers have collated an open list of tools that already have elements of AI in them. The results are truly surprising. There are more than 150 tools identified that have an element of AI in them.

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The full Google sheet with the findings can be found here.

What’s striking about the list is how commonplace the tools are. Link shortener bitly, for exampls, has been a staple for the best part of a decade. Mailchimp, If This Then That and Canva are staples of my working day. Your’s too, maybe.

So, if AI is also day-to-day, doesn’t that mean that AI is already having an impact on PR and comms?

The answer to that is ‘yes.’

How much AI is affecting you… and will affect you

Again, Stephen Waddington’s inspired research is useful to map the next steps. His work leads into CIPR’s excellent ‘Humans Still Required’ report by Canadian academic Jean Valin. This sets out how much of PR is already AI-affected. At the moment, 12 per cent of PR is potentially AI. That’s things like evaluation, data processing, programming and curation.

But it starts getting even more interesting when looking at the future. The figure rises to 36 per cent by 2023. There’s a whole range of areas that can be maximised from stakeholder analysis to reputation monitoring. Areas like ethics, law and career management stay outside the long reach of the robots.

Other research from the University of Oxford put PR managers as the 67th safest from a list of more than 700.

All this is striking. But where does it affect you?

The future is already quietly colliding with the presentout of view.  There is no one single moment but a series of moments. It’s already happening. There is no announcement to close 100 pits but 100,000 decisions to use different software that can help you do your job more easily.

AI will come not through the organisation but through suppliers. In all likelihood, this won’t be driven by individual teams writing code but an arms race between providers. A to-be-invented Google tool, for example. Or the news management software company that adds AI elements to existing AI elements to its own existing press release management system.

Content will be written by AI. News agency Press Association are experimenting with distributing news stories written by AI. If news stories can be written this way then press releases and other content can be too. But that’ll be through a supplier doing the hard yards and pricing it.

At first, AI knowledge will be outsourced. Given the rapid developments in the sector and the fact that existing public sector teams are busy enough already there isn’t the headspace. Advice from outside will be important at the start. It’ll be as much about efficiencies as it is delivering a better job.

Sit back, but don’t sit back. Others will be doing the hard yards to make this work. But don’t sign your future away.  A baseline need to understand AI is needed. You won’t need to know how to code. But you will know how that code can affect you and most importantly of all, you’ll need to know the ethics and the law of it.  For the public sector, this is going to be tricky. Right now, there isn’t a publicly-accepted code of ethics for AI. But there are broader approaches that can govern it across the sector. Like GDPR, for example.

Leaders will have to lead to bring teams along. AI is and can be scary. It is different. Yes, it can mean fewer people doing the job. But the tasks it may replace are likely to be the routine in comms and PR rather than the the big ticket. You won’t be sending a robot along the corridor to the crisis meeting with emergency planning to discuss the three day old fire. You will be automating the fire’s evaluation.

The risk of ‘computer says no’ IT teams. PR and comms risk outsourcing AI knowledge at their own peril. From fear or ignorance, there is a temptation to look to IT for answers. But with many IT teams being the blocker and struggling even 10 years on with social media, this isn’t a strategy to take. You need to know some of the basics yourself to work out what can and can’t be done.

Data driven decisions. Often public sector comms can be driven by personality, politicians and practice. One of the great achievements of the UK’s Government Communications Service is to move away from comms that’s just churning stuff out for the sake of it. But other teams and other organisations still shoot from the hip. In an emergency, there is nothing better than working at speed on-the-hoof. That skill will stay hugely valuable. But there feels like a clash between this and the more data-driven strategic approach of AI. It’ll be interesting to see how this works itself out.

Reputational damage and lots of it. The application of bad AI in parts of the sector will be keenly felt. The self-driving car delivering meals on wheels to the wrong house. The very idea of self-driving cars delivering meals on wheels in the first place.  This will all be bread and butter. The benefits of AI won’t be celebrated but the disasters absolutely will be. There is a huge role for comms in explaining – and warning – against the delivery.

‘Hey Google, what time does the tip close?’ Websites are useful but cumbersome things. Your organisation will not prosper if they can’t work with tools like Alexa. One idea kicking around is for a box in the kitchen that talks to the local council website and flashes the colour of the right bin that needs to go out the night before. That’s AI right there, that is.

Learning. Ever learning. The comms person who thinks they’ve learned everything is the one who will be replaced. This is not remotely a bold statement. We’re seeing it. If the only skill you have is writing press releases that’s not something you’ll be getting a new job with. But a range of skills and a willingness to learn gives you a chance of a career. AI just underlines this. Stephen Waddington’s advice to learn, read and keep learning is valuable.

Open the pod bay doors, Hal. In 2001 A Space Odyssey the human is faced down by Hal the robot who refuses to open the pod bay doors. This is one moment is the nightmare scenario for humans. It’s the moment when computers take control. But I’m genuinely not seeing this in comms and PR just yet. Hal the robot refusing to do write the Facebook update? Probably not. R2D2 software running the alerts and producing the reports for you? Then next week producing machine-learnt better reports? Absolutely.

Pic credit: Robot by Alexander Svensson /Flickr.