Storytelling and advance of AI
Storytelling, the art of developing narratives, is considered one of the most needed skills in business. This is because your stories enable your colleagues and customers to intuitively understand and resonate with new business ideas, marketing messages and future visions. Storytelling is a distinct act that humans only can do. But this one of a kind status is being challenged by evolving technologies.
Today, the rapid advance of AI models is changing many aspects of our lives and work. Large language models like ChatGPT can instantly generate texts in as good quality as we do. Since language was invented a long time ago, it has been human beings only that can do this. However, so-called ‘generative AI’ is expected to cause massive transformation in the way people do creative business work. In Fujitsu’s global survey of 1,800 business leaders in nine countries in January 2023, 42% of the respondents expected that more than 50% of business tasks in their organization would be conducted by people and AI in collaboration by 2030*1. A radical change is imminent.
Does AI understand meanings?
Even in story writing, we have already seen that AI models can create stories with good plots. But you may want to ask: Do these AI models understand what the generated words and texts mean? I think the answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Fundamentally, large language models are good at finding the most statistically probable word that should follow, considering the preceding context. These AI models can do this by estimating ultra-complex relationships, in other words ‘correlations’, between words through learning from enormous amounts of texts.
Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of modern linguistics, said “language is a system of arbitrary signs.” He also said, “there are only differences in language.” Differences are relationships between signs – words. In some way, current AI models are able to understand relationships between these arbitrary signs in the human language system. In this sense, yes, we may presume they understand meanings of words and texts at least on a surface level.
But AI has a serious limitation
On the other hand, however, language is tightly connected with what we experience through our body. In other words, human language is deeply embodied. I am a Japanese with its cultural heritage. When Japanese people hear the word ‘Sakura’, meaning a Cherry tree or its blossoms, we instantly recall images of beautiful flowers with gradations of light pink. But this word has a hidden magical power. At the same time, we also feel ‘transience of human lives’, as the word ‘Sakura’ evokes an image of falling cherry blossoms that symbolizes mortality. Such intrinsic connotation of ‘Sakura’ reflects the Japanese people’s shared cultural experiences and embodied deep feelings. I don’t think AI models can reproduce these symbolic meanings, because they have neither subjective consciousness nor bodily experiences. From this viewpoint, no, AI models lack deeper understanding of meanings linked with our senses, emotions and values.
The art of storytelling
I think storytelling is an art that enables your audience to unleash their imagination and experience your stories. To explore this further, let’s look at what great artists talked about their approaches to producing their works. Paul Valéry, a renowned poet and essayist, mentioned that producers (artists) and consumers (readers) are facing a work of art in between. For Paul, the art of poetry was to make readers experience poems using their bodies. Similarly, Marcell Duchamp, a great 20th century artist, said that an artist does only 50% of the work in creating art, and the remaining 50% is in the viewer’s brain. These principles also apply to storytelling. Storytelling is always a collaboration between the storyteller and the audience. To put it in another way, storytelling is the human-centric art of improvised dancing with your audience. Only when your story is experienced in your audience’s mind and body, meanings will be fully unfolded.
Therefore, the art of storytelling involves executing well-thought-out strategies to induce your audience’s mind and body to experience your story. What do you want to tell wholeheartedly? How do you build trust with your audience? How do you attract their attention? In addition, what kind of contexts do you build? How do you express your ideas metaphorically? And finally, how do you let your audience develop imagination by asking questions? How do you embed tones and rhythms in your story? All these are key for helping your audience to dance with your story.
Narratives about what we are, where we are going
Thinking about ‘what AI can do’ leads us to revisiting ‘what we humans are’. There are many pathways to consider this question. But I am inclined to say that we are a unique existence that lives by creating and communicating stories. Individually, you create your own personal story to identify who you are and what you want to become. We also create shared stories. In the ancient days, our ancestors created myths for their community, sharing them to build their culture and navigate their journey toward the future. In the middle ages, religions provided the sacred canopy for greater society. Today, we no longer have such foundational stories.
Nevertheless, we have to continue making efforts to develop stories about our future, in other words, narratives about ‘where we are going’. Today, we are facing difficult challenges like climate change and loss of human dignity. Simultaneously, we are seeing the rapid advance of technologies posing great opportunities as well as serious threats. We now need to develop our shared narratives about humanity, which will guide us toward the future, taking account of the boundaries of our planet, people’s well-being as well as co-existence with technologies. Whatever narrative we create, it must be danceable, resonating with our mind and body, allowing people to experience it to take actions. For this very reason, I believe the human-centric art of storytelling is needed more than ever before.
About the author:
Yoshikuni Takashige is former VP and Chief Strategist of Fujitsu. Yoshikuni led developing narratives of Fujitsu’s future vision for more than 10 years. Currently, Senior Advisor of Ridgelinez (Fujitsu’s consulting arm) and Ambassador of Global Peter Drucker Forum.
*1: Fujitsu’s global sustainability transformation survey report 2023 (https://www.fujitsu.com/global/vision/insights/sustainability-transformation-survey-2023/index.html)