Imagine reading an automated news story that was composed entirely by a computer. (It's likely that you already have.) Or imagine yourself sitting on a couch, conversing with an artificially intelligent psychotherapist who interacts with you from a screen across the room. These are examples of a growing trend of automated and artificially intelligent technology that is being designed to communicate on behalf of and at times in place of people.
While most people tend to think that automation affects only certain sectors of labor (especially work performed in blue-collar professions), the computerized automation of communication will have a serious impact on a wide variety of fields. A new study recently published in the National Communication Association's journal Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies and featured in the association's newly released research digest, Communication Currents, examines the social and political impact of this transformation. What happens, asks author and Communication scholar Joshua Reeves of Oregon State University, if people increasingly rely on automated machines to carry out the socially essential work of communicating with one another? Reeves argues that automation of communication raises broad social, economic, and political concerns.
The economic consequences of automated communication are already affecting people who work in fields that rely heavily on communication, including psychotherapists, personal assistants, college advisers, telemarketers, life coaches, bank tellers, and even teachers and professors. In fact, Reeves says, most people have already been exposed to automated discourse when ordering fast food, learning the positions of political candidates, checking bank balances, or making doctor appointments.
The Threat of Automation is Real
"The widespread circulation of automatic communicating machines gradually reduces -- in real terms -- the opportunity and impulse for cooperative human struggle," says Reeves. As machines develop competency in interpreting and producing discourse, they are gradually taking over many domains of social life in which communication is of utmost importance. In one example borrowed from Sherry Turkle's 2013 presentation to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a robotic baby seal is designed to function as a conversational companion for older adults who suffer from dementia or depression. But Reeves argues that this device is depriving younger people of the communicative act of listening to their elders. Reeves quotes Turkle: "We are building the machines that will literally let [the elderly's] stories fall on deaf ears."
"By idealizing the machine, people become more impatient with the flaws and contingencies of human relationships," writes Reeves. But communicative labor relies on the productive, spontaneous surplus of human communication to generate dissent and creativity. According to Reeves, the socially essential work of human communication is being "drained of its spontaneity, contingency, and politically creative potential." In an era of automated communicative labor, those uniquely human qualities are destined for elimination, he notes.
Automation of Written and Oral Discourse
While blue-collar workers have been suffering the brunt of automated labor for some time, people in other fields of work also should be concerned about their fate, says Reeves. He examines the threats to communicative workers such as journalists. "Robo-journalism" has become commonplace. In March 2014, when an earthquake hit southern California, the Los Angeles Times was able to use an algorithmic discourse generator called Quakebot to break the news. While some are not worried that robo-journalism will take over the field, others disagree. The company Narrative Science estimates that 90 percent of news stories will be bot-generated by 2030.
Reeves argues that as automated communication becomes more prevalent, people need to develop a stronger understanding of the challenges facing others in communication-oriented fields. While automation creates some opportunities to open doors to other forms of creative work, it also creates the potential for social alienation and labor displacement.
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