Rowan Benecke
Global Chair
Burson-Marsteller's Technology Practice

Originally published on LinkedIn, May 9, 2016

Let’s think about what we as PR professionals do in a typical day. We read, analyze and answer email. We answer calls and make calls. We schedule meetings and then re-schedule them. We write press releases or pitches and we reach out to media. We monitor and analyze media coverage, formulate competitive differentiation, make strategic recommendations on paid/earned/owned media placement and offer a point of view on all aspects of communications strategy. How much of our jobs could be done by artificial intelligence (AI)? Are we fooling ourselves when we say no robot could provide the personal, consultative depth we offer when we counsel executives or clients? Or could an AI do better, with a more objective analysis of each situation?

It’s time to ask these questions. We’re seeing AI pop up everywhere, whether it’s Google’s email manager answering your emails for you or scheduling your appointments, these helpful little pieces of code are ingratiating themselves into our inboxes and calendars. And they can be quite clever. For example, Google’s AI can identify emails that need a brief reply. After determining whether an email should be answered, the Smart Reply feature provides three suitable responses. You pick the option and off goes your email. The system is designed to get smarter over time as it observes the types of responses you select.

Last fall Gartner predicted that by 2020, 40 percent of mobile interactions will be facilitated by virtual personal assistants (VPAs). According to Gartner, VPAs will monitor individuals’ content and behavior to build and maintain data models that can then draw inferences about people, content and context. Based on this information-gathering and analysis, VPAs will start to predict users’ needs, build trust and at some point act autonomously on their behalf. It’s exactly this kind of iterative learning that makes AI so powerful.

It’s one thing to have a digital assistant, but what about having a digital boss? Gartner foresees more than 3 million workers being supervised by a “robo-boss” by 2018. That’s just two years away. These bosses will monitor worker accomplishment and evaluate performance through measurements tied to output and customer feedback. Gartner notes that “smart machine managers can consume these measures more effectively and swiftly than humans…and use them to inform staffing decisions and management incentives.”

Okay, AI can answer my email, schedule appointments and tell me if I’m being productive, but what about creative ventures? After all, we are in a creative industry. Isn’t that something more suitable to humans? Apparently not. In the same Gartner report, they predict that 20 percent of business content will be authored by machines by 2018. This includes press releases, market reports, white papers and articles via the machines’ ability to gather and assemble information, automate composition and turn data-based content into natural language writing. In fact, ad agency MCann in Japan has just announced that it has hired a robot as creative director. The AI has analyzed and deconstructed Japan’s award-winning ads over the past 10 years to help inform new creative.

Well at least I know how to counsel clients, we say. Facebook is tackling that, too. At its F8 developer conference last month, Facebook announced that it is building bots for its Messenger platform so that brands and companies will be able to build small AI software programs that engage via Messenger as well.

So where does that leave us? Still in our seats for the time being. What I see is the same market pressure we have always faced in the industry: The commoditization of work such as writing press releases and pitching media; challenging us to do more than cookie-cutter PR; to think ahead, become more creative, come up with campaigns that are delightful and unexpected and employ our own synthetic thinking and points of view to problem solve.

So let’s welcome artificial intelligence into our industry. Let it relieve us of some of our work and continuously challenge us to be more than robots.