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B2B PR agency advice: Every business leader should read a little sci-fi now

Written by Simpatico PR

Posted on 2023-05-17

Business decision-makers are accustomed to pressure. Recent events are however, creating acute and perhaps unprecedented levels of uncertainty and anxiety and a unique mental balancing act.

On the one hand the list of immediate concerns that are influencing the dynamics of markets and the wider economy is long and troubling.

The high inflation-high interest rate cycle caused in large part by the impact of Covid and then the Russian invasion of Ukraine has knocked business and consumer confidence.

The impact is everywhere to be seen - investment is down, jobs in the technology space are being winnowed; a rolling crisis amongst smaller banks and the collapse of high-profile businesses such as Vice.

Balancing now and next

Navigating recessionary pressures in business is enough to keep most leadership teams fully occupied, but navigating tough times at the same time as understanding and preparing for unprecedented operational and consumer behavioural change is another thing altogether.

The impact of technology on people, government and business hasn’t exactly been glacial over the last two decades, but it has at least happened at a speed that has allowed many businesses to adapt.

Vast quantities of information and advice is out there to allow business leaders to make informed decisions and to acquire the expertise and talent to facilitate change.

The future is suddenly opaque

Now, the real and conceptual impact of generative AI must be keeping many awake at night. The pace of change is so fast and potentially so profound that many businesses (including those building the technology) are struggling to understand how it will impact either positively or negatively on their future.

Discourse in heavy-weight publications and commentary from stars of the scientific and business community about what could occur has become more than a little dystopian.

From Forbes to the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, left field political and economic ideas such as universal basic income are being raised again as fears of potential mass work-force redundancy grow.

While the next couple of years will probably be dominated by experimentation with AI applications, the longer term – say 10-20 years out is now almost un-chartable.

This is particularly so as the line between generative AI and the concept of general AI i.e. those as smart or smarter than us becomes blurred as warnings from experts such as Geoffrey Hinton who recently quit Google suggest.

Where to look for guidance if even today’s experts are at a loss for what may happen to society, business models and brands long-term?

Clues to the further future

It may seem a bit of an esoteric leap, but for long-term planners it is worth remembering there’s a long history of science fiction becoming science fact.

Now surely is the time, if ever there was one, for business leadership to overcome possible personal distaste or preconceptions and read some science fiction related to AI.

From the Matrix, Neuromancer and Terminator to 2001 A Space Odyssey there are almost too many sci-fi novels concerning AI to cope with – most focus on the destruction of humanity by AI or conflict with it on a personal level.

When it comes to wider societal implications the list narrows. Here are a few suggestions:

The Culture Series by Iain M. Banks

At the heart of this series of books sits a society known as The Culture. Banks imagined a human society in origin, which has reached an understanding of sorts with the artificial intelligences it created many centuries before.

The good news is the AIs or Minds are mainly benign, in fact they run things so well and care so much about us that humanity and other intelligences are left to spend their days in relative luxury with the freedom to do as they will.

Written largely before the arrival of the internet, Banks imagined a similar construct with huge implications – he envisaged a society with porous information and personal boundaries – people share or over share and mostly never lock their doors. Trends and fads are free-flowing as is personal freedom to choose.

Knowledge is universal, so too are biological upgrades and implants.

Those who choose to pursue business or trade can become incredibly rich, most people are happy to jog along with their lot, secure in the knowledge they are safe and supported.

A sort of self-indulgent harmony has been achieved.

AI control has enabled a post-scarcity economy. Banks described The Culture as a sort of space socialism.

Unfortunately, although well-meaning, the AIs don’t always make good decisions. In-fact they are known to develop idiosyncrasies with unexpected consequences, particularly in relation to societies who do not have the same accepting attitude towards AIs.

Beyond the obvious implication that AI may cause profound change to our current capitalist-based socio-economic status quo, Bank’s ideas raise interesting questions about the relationship between pro-AI society and experiences and those who reject it.

He also hints at the issues that achieving “good” AI service to customers and society raises some of which, like coding for diversity and inclusion have already been raised, here, back in reality.

As a footnote, Dan Simmond’s Hyperion describes a society The Hegemony with strong parallels to that of The Culture, which maintains an uneasy dependency on a separate AI civilisation.

Although it doesn’t explicitly reference AI, the societal backdrop to Star Trek strongly implies that AI has influenced society for the betterment of mankind. Manu Saadia, author of Trekonomics explores how such a world would work in practical terms.

Black Mirror, by Charlie Brooker on Channel 4 and Netflix

Darkly witty and sometimes hard to watch, Black Mirror has touched on or explored numerous scenarios concerning AI, usually with a warning attached about the potential dangers.

Episodes such as Metalhead (Season 4, Episode 5), Be Right Back (Season 2, Episode 1), Black Museum (Season 4, Episode 6) touch on different AI influenced scenarios which together point to a darker range of problems AI might create.

Her, by Spike Jonze

News that Snapchat has integrated ChatGPT into its platform provokes instants comparisons with the movie Her in which the main character falls in love with an AI personal operating system that runs his life and ends up as his partner before becoming bored with him and disappearing to pursue its own interests.

Have we already seen an early case of life imitating or following sci-fi art in the shape of CarynAI?

Reports are already surfacing of the potentially unexpected uses services designed to provide AI-powered shopping advice - as innocuous as that might seem – are having on people seeking emotional support.

I Robot, by Isaac Asimov

This is particularly interesting in the context of generative AI and growing recognition that one way or another it will require regulation. Asimov explored a range of scenarios in the relationship between AIs in the form of robots, humans and society.

At the heart of his premise though are the famous three laws of robotics.

Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:

• A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

• A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

• A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

At first sight these may seem simple, but Asimov highlights their complexity and potential for good and evil.

Imagine if these were applied to generative AI now or in the near future – what would that mean for brands or organisations that employed AI? How can injury to a human be defined or ring-fenced?

Just as data privacy has had and is having a profound impact on advertising and other areas of digital marketing, regulation in whatever form it takes will inevitably change or limit our interactions with chatbots.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects, by Ted Chiang

This book provides and entirely different perspective – this time by exploring how an AI intelligence might be trained and grow and how it may come to be used in a commercial world.

It’s probably too early to worry about looking after the welfare of ChatGPT’s various manifestations right now, but as these things are unleashed to interact with the outside world, how will that influence their growth?

Will organisations need to consider their responsibilities, will regulators need to consider protections for AIs as well as humans?

Where does B2B PR come into this?

If you claim a stake to the dialogue about rapid change, with relevant views on how your proposition sits and adds value, is adapting or can facilitate progress within a challenging world – you’re more likely to be invited to the table or sought out as a solution.

We are a little way off from generative AI being able to communicate or ideate as well as humans.

So, just like other marketing disciplines, human B2B PR agency teams still have a role to help you tell your business story well and keep your business relevant.

There is much that is known or can be guessed or implied about the immediate nature and consequences of new generative AI models across many areas of life and business. But audiences tend to be engaged more by deeper, thoughtful perspectives rather than repeating what’s already been said.

Long-term, we just like you, can only guess about the future and take inspiration from more imaginative, literary forward thinkers.

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