Pop culture’s representation of AI would have us think it’s the stuff of a dystopian future. But in reality it’s closer than we think, and is set to have a metamorphic impact on business over the next few years. While APG’s Strategy vs Robots event at the Royal Institution discussed many of the multifaceted relationships between technology and the human brain, one of the questions on everyone’s mind was inevitably how AI will impact the future role of the strategist.
A quick show of hands around the auditorium of the Ri showed an overwhelming majority of attendees from a humanities background rather than a science education (with planner prodigy and WPP fellow Rushi Bhavsar one of the few notable exceptions). In his opening remarks, Dom Boyd questioned; as an industry, do we therefore have a natural bias towards ensuring our industry is driven by human intellect rather than machines and technology? As the event unfolded, it became clear that the relationship between the human mind and technology is a far cry from the dichotomy of “us versus them”.
Why the biggest danger for strategists is humans expecting less of each other
Futurist Richard Watson was adamant that while McDonalds may use robots to predict what customers will order, and eventually, whole cities may run themselves, machines will not make humans in business obsolete. He argued that technology is terrible with dealing with humans and will never, for example, be able to understand or persuade clients the way we can. “They cannot understand all the nuances in the world, how things can fit together yet be contradictory”, he explained. He insisted that because of this, planners will not disappear and instead, we’ll be using robots to assist us with our work. The danger therefore, argued Richard, is not robots - but automatisation. “The danger is humans, humans expecting less of each other, and we need to realise that we are individuals, shaped from individual experiences”. We have the ability to cross pollinate this knowledge, which makes us particularly good at solving fluid problems, and should not leave these tasks for machines to complete.
Furthermore, Baroness Susan Greenfield, applying her endless and fascinating knowledge with neuroscience to the topic, warned that while, for example, deferring memory onto search engines can be seen simply as an extension of our own memory, we should not conflate knowledge - something that machines excel at collecting - and understanding, a concept much harder to achieve, but that the human brain is proficient at doing.
Centaur chess; the opportunity for technology and humans to work together
A question that many of the speakers asked was, is it strategy vs robots or strategy and robots? The “strategists’ strategist” Russell Davies argued that the role of technology is rather like the role it plays in centaur chess; humans and machines working together to determine the best moves on the board. He drew from his experience working at a number of large scale enterprises, and stated that the problem with many rigid organisations and what makes forward thinking companies such as Tesla and Amazon different is not necessarily that they have access to better technology, but that what organisations need to thrive is rather a better relationship with technology.
Organisations and technology; a problematic affair
Not only can we make organisations more efficient through a better relationship with technology, we can also make them more humane. This was the core idea behind David Cameron’s former strategist Steve Hilton’s arguments, that organisations have become too big, industrialised and inhuman, and, if used correctly, technology can make society more human. He argued that while technology can dehumanize us, it can also do the opposite. Has not the technology behind Airbnb for example helped to bring us closer to others?
Frances Ralston-Good, Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer at Omnicom, shed a light on how the media industry is changing to adapt to the emerging AI technology at our disposal. With the rise of personal AI assistants, we may very well be marketing to bots in the future, inexplicably changing the shape of marketing as we know it. She explained how, while AI will never replace humans in agencies, it has an opportunity to remove human error and to automatise laborious tasks.
The final insight
TBWA/London’s CSO Amelia Torode did a fantastic job at distilling the spectrum of thoughts, opinions and arguments presented over the course of the afternoon within the four walls of the Ri auditorium. She likened the relationship between strategists and technology to that of Batman vs Superman; not a clash of two opposites, but an opportunity for two forces of power to work together. The human brain will always have an ability to see the world differently from the way technology interprets it. “Computers calculate, humans speculate. Humans see the world as it could be, while machines see it for what it is.” Yes, machines will take your job if you’re not particularly good at it. But the opportunity for us is to embrace the fact that AI can be used to escalate our intelligence, we just need to know how to control it.
Rushi, who is a prime example of a brilliant human mind embracing the powerful opportunities of technology, also summed it up nicely quoting the creative technologist Ross Goodwin: ”When we teach computers to write, the computers don’t replace us any more than pianos replace pianists—in a certain way, they become our pens, and we become more than writers. We become writers of writers.”
Alexi Gunner is a Junior Strategist at We Are Social