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#CommsWeek16 Panel Recap: Is AI the Future of PR and Content Creation?

Post by Tom Kirkham, International Account Director, Kite Hill PR

AI has been a hot topic throughout 2016, and while few comms professionals aren't worrying about being replaced by robots just yet, we are starting to see examples of AI in practice in our space, with bots writing AP stories and branded content. It’s not inconceivable that, a few years down the line, an AI bot like IBM’s Watson could deliver content that at least rivals the work of a skilled professional.

All of which made for an electrifying discussion on the future of content creation from our Communications Week panel, which featured CNBC Digital’s Michelle Castillo, Jennifer Wise at Forrester, Carol Chung of Digitas, alongside Merrill Brown of Montclair State University’s School of Communications and Media.

Moderator Andy Morris of Code Morris kicked things off by citing the recent Forrester report on the rise of intelligent agents, handing it over to Wise to explain: “When we’re thinking about intelligent agents, we’re talking about Siri, Cortana etc. - technology that knows a lot about our digital selves and can help cut through the digital clutter."

While Wise cited the consumer benefits, Chung was quick to pick up the baton on behalf of brands, noting that “We’re looking at how we take the data we have on our consumers and tailor our marketing and messaging in a way that is powerful and helpful and relevant. One-to-one messaging is really important and AI, machine learning and programmatic are helping us to recognize patterns - figuring out what you’re interested in so that advertising becomes more helpful and adds value to you.”

The debate turned to the current headway made by AI, with Castillo offering a balanced perspective, pointing out that “When we have systems that can be more personalised and show a more human side, this is when adoption will become more prevalent.” Brown responded by highlighting significant areas where bots could easily be deployed today. “To the extent that bots could take over straightforward PR duties such as corporate earnings releases, this technology is a plus.  There are a lot of categories within the service industries where this tech can free up resource to focus on more creative work.”

Castillo provided the counterpoint here, arguing that from a journalistic perspective, “If you do want a more in-depth story, you still need something that has more creativity - the human factor, with the ability to discern between truth and lies.”

Nevertheless, Brown continued, “There is too much creative time being wasted - across the media and communications. AP is a perfect model for getting AI right - they want to cover every sporting event in the world going forwards and bots is how they’re doing it.”

One of the most interesting aspects of the debate was around the potential for more nuanced advertising as a result of greater use of machine-learning. Chung explained that, "The next frontier is what I like to think of as a memory. Right now as an advertiser, almost every conversation is like a ‘first’. This can get a bit annoying." She highlighted the opportunity for advertisers to create memories of previous consumer touch points, with machine-learning then able to modify future interactions accordingly.

Wise jumped in on this point: "At the moment, the ads we see today have no real build on it all. Intelligent agents can create a far more robust profile of preferences and past behavior. This is the point at which they become sufficiently helpful for consumers to start to use them as a broker on their behalf."

The debate culminated around the question of AI posing a threat to communicators' jobs in years to come. Castillo explained that while bots "might be able to create and manufacture an ideal conversation they won’t be able to come up with the original ideas on their own - that’s where we’ll still need the jobs. These will be higher tech jobs, which may raise the bar in terms of who is working at these companies.”

Morris made the interesting point that in some ways, this could make bots the new face of outsourcing, while Wise acknowledged that AI with personality was very much a work in progress. In arguably the most divisive debate we've seen yet during Communications Week, Chung chimed in with a neat summary of where AI is at, noting that irrespective of progress made in the field overall, “Bots themselves are only going to be as good as the human programmer that built it. They can be both a positive or negative experience… Helpful or creepy... But behind every bot is still a human.”