AI, PR, and Empathy


Fei-Fei Li, Google’s Head of AI wasn’t there to talk about PR, but listening to her deliver the Lorna Casselton lecture in Oxford the other night coincided with me reading Chris Lee’s recent piece in City AM - which definitely was about PR, and whether our world is threatened by the march of the robots.   

Anyway, with both of those things shoved together in my mind, here’s a few thoughts.

Technological innovation always has the potential to deliver a jolt of futureshock faster than  Charlie Brooker can write episodes of Black Mirror.


Like, even as many of us are trying to deal with a world where search might be voice-led, and page rankings become irrelevant, along comes an actual mind-reading headset. Yes, for those of us who remember Clint Eastwood trying to steal a MiG jet in Firefox, and having to ‘think in Russian’, here’s a real (the story was very close to April Fool’s Day) mind-reading device, that at least suggests that share-of-mind for brands will take a more literal dimension than we ever considered before. The AI bots might be marching; they might be talking, chatting, opening doors, painting, writing poetry, singing lullabies (shameless bot-plug - that was one of ours) - but there’s no sign of them actually feeling anything, anytime soon, if ever.

To say that the realm of creativity might lie beyond AI’s reach is perhaps too generalised. Forming original ideas, and transforming these into content-y stuff, certainly does not appear to lie beyond the reach of artificial intelligence.

But - as long as I believe that we are in the business of storymaking and storytelling, that stories shape and reflect how we humans are made inside - and that stories are little packages of empathy, little emotional bundles, then I think (feel?) that these are still the domain of full-on human-to-human contact. It’s the utter subjectivity of a good story - the very visible humanity - that makes it ‘good’. Heineken know this, so they put a story about empathy at the heart of their campaign.

Whereas most advances in AI are trying to solve for that subjectivity. And that’s really useful, for all the walks of life where our subjective, human frailties are a burden.

Like solving for our concentration spans - with smart sensors in hospitals that can monitor our hygiene routines. Like solving for our brains’ data-capacity, by informing diagnostics for surgeons. Like solving for our bias, by aiding rational decisions in courtrooms. Here’s my conclusion, for now. We should keep developing AI to solve for human frailties. For all the walks-of-life where those frailties are holding-back our progress. To harness intelligence to polish away our human rough-edges.

For that, I agree with Matt Cartmell and Stephen Waddington about our own PR industry’s upgrading of our knowledge and talent to pursue the adoption of AI, to solve the burdensome and task-laden.

But stories connect with our flaws, the messy stuff that makes us human. It’s why, when we’re given a data-rich version of audience segmentation, we still go and find a real-person to talk to. It’s why we will always rely on empathy (or at least try to) when imagining a story.It’s the rough-edges which bind us together, not the polished surfaces.

BlogColin Cather