Future-proofing PR: The Turing test in reverse

Alan Turing changed our world view to an extent only matched by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud. Communicators can – and should! – learn a thing or two from the Turing test.

Big data, the Internet of things, Industry 4.0 – these buzz words stand for a far-reaching change in how business creates value, and we’ve long underestimated their transformational power. Gordon Crovitz, former publisher of the Wall Street Journal and digital media expert, thinks the problem is systematic: “With every change in technology that affects consumer behavior, we always overestimate the impact in the short term, but then underestimate the full impact over the long term.” He cites the “First Law of Technology” and smartphones as an example.

So, it is only logical that we are now witnessing a veritable revolution that goes way beyond the emergence of new products and services. Italian philosopher and Oxford lecturer Luciano Floridi even titled his 2015 book “The Fourth Revolution”, in which he makes a convincing case that Alan Turing – the father of computer science – has changed our world view to an extent only matched by Nicolaus Copernicus, Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud before him.

Depicted in flowcharts today, performed by machines tomorrow

American photographer Eric Pickersgill has made this dramatic transformation evident in a photographic series entitled “Removed”. In it, he shows everyday scenes with one unmistakable similarity: the smartphones and tablets have been physically removed. His striking images leave you with the impression that in the future only digital and connected things that you can access, view and influence will play a role our lives. Ben Hammersley, Editor at Large of the UK edition of Wired, calls the analysis of whether technology and business models will make it into the future “Future Proofing”. He bases his theory on the assumption that everything that can be depicted in a process flowchart will be performed by machines in the future. The examples he gives include significant elements of legal advice and even medical consultation.

So what does this mean for communications management? Are we entering the machine age of PR? There is no question that new media channels like electronic media and especially the Internet have increased the scope (not to mention the challenges) of communications. But by the same token, new processes to analyze and connect data help create detailed status reports fast. New data-based, real-time tools will no doubt emerge in these areas to further increase the efficiency and effectiveness of communications management.

Pass the Turing test or be replaced by an algorithm

When it comes to the discipline of corporate communications, it’s safe to say it’s future proof because it does not follow the flowchart logic of yes/no or right/wrong and is thus absolutely analog. Tasks requiring social intelligence, empathy, powers of persuasion and negotiation skills are largely immune to competition from machines, something that Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne highlighted in their 2013 study, The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerization? For PR professionals, this means placing these human qualities at the very center of our work.

Alan Turing developed what is known as the Turing test, which is used to assess whether a human evaluator believes a machine appears human during conversation. But in the age of the Fourth Revolution, testing the reverse is more important to the future of PR. If communicators want to avoid being replaced by an algorithm, they themselves must pass the Turing test.

Foto: Alan Turing (here a slate sculpture) is considered one of the most influential theorists of the early computer development and computer science. © Jon Callas from San Jose, USA derivative work: OS / [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)] / Wikimedia Commons

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