Why AI will never completely replace comms pros

Our robot overlords can't crack a joke, and that will be their downfall, according to Jason Stanford and Peter Zandan of Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

These are scary times for liberal arts majors. We’re being replaced by machines that can create ads, summarize scientific papers, pass reading comprehension tests, and write news articles.

When robots came for the factory workers, we said nothing because we majored in history and Russian studies. When they started building self-driving cars, we said nothing because we were too busy retweeting videos of cats fighting Roombas reading Descartes.

When the tech nerds created AI to design more effective pharmaceutical drugs we probably made some stupid Cheech & Chong joke to cover our embarrassment that we didn’t understand science.

But now the robots have come for our jobs, and a lot of us are asking ‘Siri, what are we supposed to do now?’

Siri can’t answer, not because she’s trying to take over copywriting jobs, but because it’s the wrong question. AI is clearly disrupting communications, but at this stage creating emotional connections still rules.

The challenge for creative people is to understand this isn’t an us-versus-them fight for vocational survival; it’s an opportunity to embrace humanity’s role in this disruption by becoming data-literate. In other words, it’s time for kids from the A/V Club to join the Mathletes to help them infuse the data with creativity.

In its current state, AI is what happens when you have emotionally illiterate engineers trying to recreate humanity with data. And the anxiety about being replaced by machines is what happens when creative types never become data-literate.

But the fact is that data is emotionally driven. Buzzy phrases like "data-driven decisions" only reinforce the misapprehension, if not the false ideology, that the best way to make decisions is rationally and devoid of emotion.

Despite the Spock-like ideal of rational decision-making, humans cannot separate emotion from effective decision-making. This was first demonstrated in the foundational case of Phineas Gage, a railroad foreman who survived having a spike driven through the left frontal lobe of his brain.

Much of his brain and motor functions remained intact. But he lost the ability to feel emotions and along with it, his decision-making ability. Without emotions, he wasn’t able to assign proper priorities to his actions, and so he made horrible decisions for the rest of his life.

Nevertheless, the belief that the best decisions are made without emotions persists despite the scientific consensus that it is complete balderdash.

Antonio Damasio’s "somatic marker hypothesis" says that the decision making process is actually much more impressive than a simple choice between reason and emotion. You need — and use — both.

Here’s how it works: Your brain can come up with a lot of items on a to-do list, but your emotions prioritize them by sending you intuitive signals about what is important. When it’s working properly, your reason listens to your intuition, not suppressing it as frivolously emotional but also not letting it overwhelm things.

Most of this happens without your conscious mind being along for the ride, which is why even if you think you’re making a rational decision, you’ve already made an emotional decision to do so.

AI replicates this emotional prioritization by analyzing the data about past actions and decisions that humans undertook with the benefit of emotions. In this way AI is, in a sense, smarter than someone with a steel rod shoved through his brain.

AI can analyze data, look at what worked and what didn’t in the past, and then make competent decisions at a speed and scale that can revolutionize the communications industry.

But AI can’t adapt to evolving priorities like you can when emotions inform your choices. And it won’t stop sending you ads for shoes you’ve already bought.

In other words, AI can’t create anything truly new because it’s too good at rational, i.e., higher-order, thinking, and creativity occurs in the cerebellum, the part of your brain that’s located at the back of your skull.

The cerebellum regulates coordination and muscle memory and it, as recent studies reveal, is also where creativity, humor, and musical improvisation occur. This explains why AI can sift through endless probabilities but can’t think up a single joke.

As one study’s lead author concluded: "The more you think about [creativity], the more you mess it up." In other words, the creative spark is a reflex, not an algorithm. And that spark is exactly what creative pros bring to the data discussion.

Informing data with creativity will inevitably create a new paradigm in communications. AI can, and probably should, replace a majority of what humans do now.

But until we understand what we can’t do with data — and what data can do only with our help — we are putting Descartes before the horse. Without informed creativity, we remain vulnerable to a future in which computers are effectively driving steel rods through our brains with endless ads for shoes we’ve already bought.

Peter Zandan, the global vice chairman of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, received a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Massachusetts. Jason Stanford, H+K’s Senior Vice President for Global Communications, studied Russian at Lewis & Clark College.

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