Think creativity’s safe from robots? Think again.

A scene from Äkta Människor or ‘Real Humans’, the Swedish inspiration for Channel 4’s ‘Humans’.

Jim Wolff, Head of Digital at Leith looks into the future and sees fewer actual humans in the creative industries.


So I got one of those Alexa things from Amazon the other week. A voice-activated human-like computer-robot in a sleek glowing cylinder. It was an experiment I told myself. A way to keep up with the cutting edge (even though it launched in the US a few years ago). A whole new interface. The new frontier.

So what if it all it could usefully do was play a Spotify song. Or add something to a shopping list. Or tell me the weather. Or set an alarm. Or search Wikipedia. Or create a calendar event. Sure, I can do all these things with my mobile, or a tablet, or one of those funny old laptop things. But Alexa’s different. It talks back. It responds. It appears to know what the hell you’re on about. It’s not even really an it. She’s a she.

Cue endless ‘hilarity’ with the kids telling Alexa what to do…

“Alexa, play the Gummy Bear song.” For the hundredth time. If you’ve heard this once, it’s already once too many.

“Alexa, put chocolate and sushi on the shopping list.” Why sushi? Who knows. She’s only had it once, years ago, for the record.

“Alexa, play Baby Shake Your Bum Cheeks.” This song doesn’t even exist, but that didn’t stop them asking for it over and over again, and dying from laughter every time. Yes, my parenting could try harder.

But once you get past the daft question and novelty app phase, it’s creepily intriguing how Alexa finds a place in the home. Suddenly it’s a hassle to tap out a search query (“Alexa, what’s the weather like tomorrow). Or turn up the volume manually (“Alexa, turn volume to 10”). Or get out of bed (“Alexa, go to work for me today”).

Not only does she serve a functional role, but an emotional one too. Say “Alexa, good morning” and she responds in a different way every day, sometimes in a way that piques further curiosity, sometimes in a way that makes you laugh. And I’m not alone in saying “Alexa, good night” too. Apparently 20% of all interaction with ‘her’ serves no functional purpose other than ‘just having a chat’. This is not just a task manager, it’s an automated human, that simulates humanity in a way that triggers emotional responses.

And it’s this simulation point that’s the job killer.

Because robots are getting so good at simulating humans that they’re making them redundant.

Just watch Humans Need Not Apply if you don’t believe me.

We’ve spent hundreds of years coming up with tools to save us time and effort, and now these tools are so good that we’ve replaced the need for some jobs to be done by humans at all. And by ‘some jobs’ I mean an alarmingly growing number.

Just take a look at the most popular job by state in the US and consider how driverless cars will impact on employment, the US economy and the state of an increasingly volatile nation...

Pretty grim, huh? We’re already seeing massive rail strike disruption in the UK thanks to automation. Expect more.

It’s not just manufacturing and blue collar jobs that are at risk (see the recent news about Capita replacing staff with robots to save money), but thinking jobs too. We’ve simulated thought processes so effectively that ‘high concept’ work done by doctors and lawyers can be done more effectively by a machine. A machine can cross-reference 1000s of drug effects in an instance. A machine can search through 1000s legal cases in half a blink of an eye. And every time it does that, someone works less and becomes less useful.

But creativity is safe, right? Because robots can’t have original ideas.

It’s on thin ice. Because robots don’t have to have truly original ideas to be a threat. They just have to be cheaper and more convenient.

Want classical music for your next ad, just ask Emily Howell (‘she’ is a bot).

Need a piece of copy for your website, just ask Wordsmith. The Associated Press ask Wordsmith for copy a lot now, publishing more than 3,000 stories every month without human journalists.

Looking for a new proposition or strapline for your brand. Just ask Taglin3r, the Twitter bot created by Russell Davies that generates a new line every hour, or you can get as many as you want right here. It’s not perfect, and was knocked together to prove a point, but you can see how it might speed things up.

1. Have a workshop with the client, gather all the words that seem appropriate for the brand.
2. Chuck them in the bot.
3. Generate a few hundred taglines.
4. Sift through and eliminate the accidentally inappropriate ones.
5. Chuck the rest on some automatically generated banners and see which one gets the most clicks.
6. Hey presto — that’s your new tagline.

Or how about a video that needs editing? Use a costly human who’ll take a while, or do it in a cheap instant with Muvee or countless other services? I know what your head of finance would choose.

Or a new logo perhaps? Why employ a designer when something like Withoomph can knock up loads in seconds? Yes they’re not all brilliant, but there’ll be one or two that are good enough for most people.

One of these attempts by Withoomph isn’t the new Leith logo. For now…

Or what about a social media manager? Why not use a pre-programmed bot. If you think a bot can’t be funny or dark or tell stories, try interacting with Persona Synthetics, part of the campaign for Channel 4’s Humans series.

You can ‘have some fun’ with it, just like you can with a real human…

Ok ok, it’s pre-programmed, but these things are getting better and better at simulating conversation, to the point that eventually you won’t be able to tell the difference. And that’s where things get pretty dark.

When simulation gets so good that you can’t tell the difference, that’s when you know not just creativity is under threat, but our entire species is f*cked. Or at least the economic model our society is built on, where humans are paid for the time and perceived value of the work they do. If you think globalisation and digital has disrupted things so far, brace yourself for the most disruptive phase so far: automation.

But it’s nearly Christmas. So let’s end on a positive note: the robots have still got a fair bit of catching up to do. Have a listen to this computer-generated Christmas carol for that warm and cosy feeling that your creative job will be safe for at least another year.


Wondering why we’re actually busier than ever in spite of all this automation? Read I’m so busy… I don’t know if I’ve found a rope or lost my horse by another Leith planner, Vic Milne.