As the global population soars, we are collectively developing the desire and ability to communicate with larger groups of people. But as our audiences grow, we’re left with a paradox: the more people I reach, the less meaningful each piece of communication becomes.

I can have a much more meaningful interaction with someone sitting across the table from me than I can with a massive group of people, spread out all over the world, using one message. As social media and technology “connect us” in new ways, we’re being driven apart by those messages. Just consider the increasing political divisiveness around the world, at least partially the result of people misunderstanding or talking-past each other.

Artificial intelligence promises a lot: self-driving cars, more complex automation, leaps in medical research. Many of these are, however, still far from realization. But machine learning’s ability to revolutionize communication is already here. Specifically, as we collect data on how someone likes to be communicated with — how they prefer to be contacted, what words resonate with them, what tone inspires them — we can generate messages that connect with people in more impactful ways, and we can do it billions of times over in an instant. Though perhaps not as “flashy” as AI sci-fi like humanoid robots, this could potentially affect billions of lives in subtle, but truly meaningful, ways.

“However, by capturing and analyzing students’ learning and information-gathering processes, online universities could design classes and lessons on more individual levels (and at scale) to provide significantly more intimate learning experiences.”

I have been working on questions of machine learning and natural language processing for over 15 years in the context of marketing and brand communications specifically, but I can envision countless opportunities to shape communications more broadly.

Increasingly popular online education and massive open online courses (or MOOCs) are educating millions of people who might otherwise not have access. However, for all their benefits, it’s nearly impossible to replicate the sort of 1-to-1 education that happens in a classroom. However, by capturing and analyzing students’ learning and information-gathering processes, online universities could design classes and lessons on more individual levels (and at scale) to provide significantly more intimate learning experiences.

The same principals can apply to educating massive groups of people in emerging countries about their rights and encouraging them to become informed and participate in the democratic process. A dearth of information — or surplus of misinformation — is often a driver of non-participation and an enemy of democracy. This sort of information can be complicated, admittedly dull, and hard to convey in understandable ways. However, tailoring these communications to make them more engaging could address those problems and provide much needed critical information.

Similarly, we could utilize these technologies to better convey accurate, meaningful information to combat propagandist, “fake” news. Though propaganda has existed for years, the 2016 U.S. election, UK Brexit, and several other EU elections have demonstrated the power of carefully formulated misinformation to influence an outcome. We’re already seeing companies like Swayable, a data science platform, popping up to measure whether content changes people’s minds and to “bring the experimental rigor of scientific testing to the efficacy of political messaging.” The advent of fast-spreading “fake” news has been chaotic and unpredictable, but also surprisingly effective. Countering it will require a more systematic approach that shares accurate information, and does so in a way that speaks to people the same way divisive fake news has so powerfully done.

Consider how charities and important causes around the world could better engage the more fortunate among us to participate in helping the world, either through direct donation or by rallying to important causes. Many people are open to supporting a cause if they understand it and it’s conveyed to them in a way that resonates with their own concerns, wishes, or values. Or how governments can convey warning messages or complex alerts, especially in times of stress or danger. Or even how surveys could be designed to collect the most accurate information from large groups of people to better understand their wants and needs in order to design more effective policy proposals to address those concerns. The possibilities are endless.

Our world is becoming increasingly balkanized, left unable to communicate with each other. Perhaps some of this stems from a difference of opinion, but difference of opinion has always existed; a breakdown in communication is a larger concern. AI will improve many aspects of our lives in the years to come, but we’re already on the verge of changing how we communicate, and therefore the world.


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