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Storytelling in the age of artificial intelligence

In June 2017, New Scientist magazine published a story about how long it would take for artificial intelligence (AI) to surpass human intelligence. The article was later shared on Twitter through a tweet that read: “AI will be able to beat us at everything by 2060, say experts.”

“Probably closer to 2030 to 2040 in my opinion, 2060 would be a linear extrapolation, but progress is exponential,” responded Open AI co-founder and avid Twitter user, Elon Musk. What Musk didn’t know is that the initial tweet had been generated by Echobox, an AI-driven social media management tool that chose the article, generated the message and shared it at a time that would maximize traffic for the New Scientist’s website.

Studies on how AI is impacting the world of communications have shown that this technology is helping PR practitioners monitor news and social media, listen to and analyze industry trends, measure campaign performance, predict possible reputational crises and report campaign results more efficiently. In fact, a study conducted by the Chartered Institute for Public Relations established that 41% of the skills and abilities needed to practice public relations are currently supported by some form of AI. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Some researchers affirm that the automation of repetitive tasks like curating journalist lists and matching brands’ content with potential influencers will allow PR professionals to focus on more exciting areas like innovation and creativity.

But what if we start automating our creative practice such as our ability to tell compelling stories? Will a machine be able to produce a narrative with the same thought, care and emotion that a communication professional can? Not necessarily, but it will certainly help us create more meaningful and heartwarming stories.

In recent years, AI language models have become dramatically better at delivering coherent, human-like pieces of writing. In its first year, The Washington Post’s robot writer Heliograf produced approximately 850 articles, including 500 pieces about the 2016 election that generated more than 500,000 views. This is 75% more than what the Post’s staff generated in 2012. Other robots assisting the newsrooms are Forbes’ content management system, Bertie; Bloomberg’s business reporter, Cyborg; and the Wordsmith platform used by the Associated Press. These AI-powered machines can report news stories, industry trends, corporate earnings and even sports results in a matter of seconds. But these reports often follow the same format and offer very little emotional pull.

Recent language models like Jamie Kiros and Samim Winiger’s ‘Neural Storyteller’ and Open AI’s ‘GPT-2’ have offered a glimpse into the future of a more exciting field: story- telling. These models have been trained on a wide array of sources, including Taylor Swift’s music lyrics and romance novels. The results are hilarious — and sometimes nonsensical — pieces of writing that depict what storytelling will look like in the near future: challenging, experimental and fun.

Even though AI is not ready to write a best- seller yet, it is a powerful tool that can improve stories and increase audience engagement.

In 2017, MIT Media Lab and McKinsey & Company announced they had successfully used machine learning to analyze the emotional arc of a movie and predict how engaging it would be. By offering data-driven insights, this breakthrough technology can potentially “supercharge” storytellers and help them tell meaningful stories in an already saturated digital world.

Algorithms are an efficient way to extrapolate information from past creations and predict what stories will work and which ones will not. But, contrary to Elon Musk’s predictions, they still lag behind human creativity when it comes to radical and original thinking. Artificial neural networks and machine learning rely on vast amounts of data to identify patterns within them, but they can’t predict when these patterns will change, a crucial component of creative thinking.

The element of surprise in storytelling still depends on our capacity, as communicators, to link an organization’s goals with enduring aspects of our human nature. However, our ability to write surprising stories will grow more dependent on algorithmic tools that have the power to offer relevant insights we wouldn’t otherwise know, and push our creative boundaries by forcing us to come up with ideas no one has ever heard before. To thrive in the age of artificial intelligence, PR practitioners must cultivate our ability to understand the influence of this technology and embrace it as a creative partner that will help us connect with other humans in a more profound and meaningful way.

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