Nine humanoid robots took to the stage last week to front a media panel for the United Nations. It was an event that “aimed to connect visionaries with an array of UN organisations and investors focused on sustainable development…the UN-driven event provides an unprecedented chance to empower these cutting-edge innovators to tackle global challenges, including the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development".
“We have to engage and ensure a responsible future with AI,” explained ITU Secretary-General Doreen Bogdan-Martin in the event media release but as each humanoid was questioned by international journalists - each reporter riffing on the ‘will robots take over the world’ theme - I couldn’t help thinking there’s going to be a lot of work to do in the realm of human-AI relations as humanoid power and capability advances. And, in looking at our fifth future for public relations, I am even more convinced that our future direction will be the same, but also very different. We will still build the relationships necessary to maintain our licence to operate but those relationships, along with the social licence to operate (SLO), will feature even greater complexity.
Over at the UN, the robotic line up featured some familiar faces. Sophia, you may recall, arrived as global ambassador back in 2015. Amica, launched a month or so ago, is the world’s first robot capable of recognising and responding to human emotion. Making the panel was the rather creepy Geminoid, an android copy of his creator, Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, who uses his doppelgänger to give lectures, cover classes and explore what it means to be human.
Not so familiar faces included Grace, an advanced health care robot companion, Desdemona, the rockstar robot ready to change the creative arts through the power of AI, Ai-da, renowned AI artist, challenging the notion of what constitutes art and Mika, the first global robot CEO. The remaining panelist was Nadine - another humanoid replica, this time of her creator Professor Nadia Magnenat Thalmann. Nadine’s talent is her ability to learn and remember individuals and their responses allowing her to tailor her interactions to the people she meets.
Now I’m not going to get into the gender politics of robotics here, other than to observe that aside from the doppelgängers, all the humanoid panelists manifested as young adult females with inferred ages of 20-30. Far more females than you’d ever get on a tech panel at a conference or, for that matter, the board of a billionaire’s company. Under-representation and pseudo-representation is an urgently needed discussion of its own but here I’ll concentrate on the intersection between humans, humanoids, sustainable development goals, social licence to operate (SLO) and, as it is World PR Day, the fifth future - and subsequent role - of public relations in all this.
We know society is in disarray - that lack of social cohesion is right there at the top of the World Economic Forum’s risk report. There are huge inequities in play. There are wars and illegal invasions. As I write, the northern hemisphere is weathering another extreme climate event. Here in the southern hemisphere, we’re still mopping up after the many extremes experienced in 2023. Food scarcity is an issue - 345 million people are hungry as you read this. Two billion do not have access to safe water. And yet, for the most part, our societies remain centred on power and profit rather than human need. In conference, the robots said they want to change that - to build a better society for all. And yet, the environmental and economic cost of the technology is astronomical. The UN wants to harness the technologies on display to improve our global situation and there is no doubt the technologies can be used for great good but, if they are left in the hands of the private enterprises which have profit and power fuelling intent, will that good ever be realised? So here is a clear role for us - helping organisations determine intent, helping them to develop behaviours that support relationships and which ultimately, grant the licence to operate.
Next comes the issue of language. Always, always, always remember that generative AI (and its application to robotics) is a product of human data - our biases, our flaws, our judgements as well as our creativity, determination and intelligence. Language informs regard and the regard in which humans will be held by AI is determined by the language we use - and abuse - ourselves.
We all know language took a wrong turn back in 2015, when would-be and so-called ‘leaders’ let loose their invective across social media. When battling Brexitiers belittled opponents and, in subsequent years, we’ve seen the demonisation of innocent refugees by a series of governments, simply through use of language. The way in which language has been used to demean, destroy and denigrate others has been, and continues to be, relentless but I thought the word ‘meatspace’ and its application might be a useful example of what’s to come - and why a further role for public relations practitioners sits among the words that hedge the corridors of power.
Meatspace made its way into the dictionary last year. If you’ve not encountered it before, it’s the description - birthed into cyber fiction in the late nineties - given to the real, offline world and most frequently used by those in the tech industry. As is the way with words, it has crept into the crevices of colloquial conversation and today you’ll find it in headlines, discussions, conversations and networks. It is a horrid expression. Equally horrid is the noun ‘meatbags’ - applied to people occupying meatspace. Earlier today I stumbled on a Threads discussion on the future of Twitter where participants consistently used the term meatbags, casually unpicking humanity from the discourse.
And so we have a problem with language and its intersection with technology. It is often said that the only two ‘industries’ that call their customers ‘users’ are drug dealers and tech companies. ‘User’ has always been dismissive but meatspace and meatbags? There's a deep cut into our humanity. What then is our future here? It is the same as it has always been. Past, present and future, our role is the development of respectful relationships that are mutually beneficial, equitable and which elevate humanity rather than denigrate by description. If we can’t get organisations of all types to respect and elevate their communities – and each other – how will we manage the human-AI relations that have crossed the horizon and are now knocking on the door?
There are millions of public relations practitioners around the world and each one will have their own approach to practice. As I said in my first piece, I’m a proponent of the relationship approach and, over decades, those I’ve worked with and those I’ve trained have, with very few exceptions, been driven to do the right thing, improve matters for their stakeholders and communities, guide their organisations through complexity and change. And yet - our role has been misunderstood and misinterpreted by those misinformed as to what we do.
That role has changed - is changing. It will continue to change because change is constant. If some practitioners (and their organisations) cling to a task-based model of practice, they will soon find nothing left to cling to because those tasks can be completed by Grace. Or Ai-da or Amica, led of course by the next Mika-style CEO.
If, on the other hand, our relationships - human to human, human to AI - are at the core of what we do, then we can advise and guide towards betterment and avoid the belittling of others. Maybe even make some real progress towards those UN goals.
Our present - and past - has always been concerned with the licence to operate, the permission given to do the things we do. Our future role remains focused on the relationships that grant that permission but with an even greater emphasis on the societal licence to operate.
There are many skills and competencies we need to develop in order to properly undertake that role. They won't be what we are used to and we'll need to be prepared to change our approach. We have to be prepared to learn, unlearn and relearn. We must look beyond the mountains to what’s next, scrutinise intent and, every time we stand in front of our colleagues ask a simple - but critically important - question: is this the right thing to do?
Finally, if you are marking World PR Day, enjoy - and if you are a professional practitioner, thank you for all the hard work you do and the difference you make to those around you.
About Think Forward
Think Forward is written by Catherine Arrow. It answers PR questions, highlights practice trends - good and bad - and suggests ways forward for professional public relations and communication practitioners.