Ben Shields

Senior Lecturer, Managerial Communication, MIT Sloan School of Management

Artificial intelligence and the Future of Communication

Artificial intelligence and the Future of Communication

Ben Shields is a senior lecturer in managerial communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He studies the impact of digital transformation in the media, entertainment, and sports industries.

By: Daniel de Wolff

Ben Shields spends much of his time focused on the impact of disruptive technologies, particularly artificial intelligence (AI), in the media, entertainment, and sports industries. “By studying these industries, we’re able to understand some of the implications of ground-breaking technologies, and what they are doing to both the fan (or consumer) experience as well as to business models today,” says the senior lecturer in managerial communications.

AI can be very helpful in the creative process, but it all starts with the unique capabilities of the human.”

The topic of AI is frequently discussed in his recently launched course at the MIT Sloan School of Management called “Creative Industries.” In the classroom, discussions around AI’s impact on the industries in question usually start with the distribution side (i.e., getting content to your target audience at the right time). But according to Shields, these conversations often take on another dimension, straying into what he considers perhaps the most interesting, certainly among the most complex issues within the influence-of-AI realm: questions related to the creative side of businesses, exploring how content creators are beginning to use AI to help them create effective content, not to mention the unforseen consequences of AI’s role within the creative process.

 “AI can be very helpful in the creative process, but it all starts with the unique capabilities of the human,” says Shields. “Change is constant,” he continues, referring to the recent advancement of generative AI and the rise of new tools like ChatGPT. “We have to remember that it’s still early in this technology and from time to time we have to hit pause, look back, do empirical research on the benefits and drawbacks of these tools, and then correct accordingly. If we don’t press that pause button, we run the risk of getting caught up in the hype of the moment.”

Shields’ measured approach is perhaps due to the fact that he knows firsthand the disruptive nature of new technologies in the media, entertainment, and sports industries. Before joining MIT, he was the Director of Social Media and Marketing at ESPN, where he helped design and implement a company-wide strategy to tap into the power of new digital communication platforms. It was the dawn of social media, otherwise known as the early aughts, and recently launched companies like Facebook (now Meta) and Twitter (now X) were exciting and highly valued. But they were wobbly legged startups on the verge, brimming with potential, not yet the tech juggernauts they would eventually become. Shields figured out how to harness their power to the great benefit of his employer and its brand.

Among his many accolades, Shields has also authored or co-authored several books, including The Sports Strategist: Developing Leaders for a High Performance Industry (Oxford University Press, 2015). Exploring how communication and leadership drive change in organizations remains close to his heart, even if the technological lens has shifted. Now, he says, he is fascinated, as a researcher and as a teacher, by the impact and implications of AI on communication.

Taking a systematic approach, he is examining the subject from three different angles. First, how humans communicate (and will in the future) about AI in a business setting. Because, as machines take a more prominent role in the workplace, Shields thinks it is important to know how managers and employees talk about the robot in the room. “Do we talk about that robot on the team as a machine, an inanimate object, or a co-worker? That is a fascinating question,” says Shields.

Second, Shields wants to know how humans will communicate through AI and with AI to build more effective organizations. Afterall, humans have to communicate through AI to reach an audience. Here, Shields draws on his industry work in the social media space.


If we are going to communicate effectively to an audience online via social media, we've got to communicate through algorithms, which means that we have to understand how to persuade these algorithms

“Every time we open up our social media feeds, we’re served content through and by an algorithm. If we are going to communicate effectively to an audience online via social media, we've got to communicate through algorithms, which means that we have to understand how to persuade these algorithms,” he says. If we have to take into consideration the various factors that an Instagram or TikTok algorithm likes and appreciates, in a sense, AI becomes the audience. “If we want to reach our audience on the platform du jour, we have to understand how that algorithm works and create content tailored to that algorithm to reach the audience on the other side,” says Shields.

Finally, on the topic of AI and communication, Shields examines how humans communicate with AI. Given the proliferation of generative AI, it would not be out of order to propose that effective human-AI communication will be a critical skill for leaders in the future. In other words, says Shields, “You’ve got to be able to communicate with these tools in ways that get the most out of them. Throughout the history of the modern workplace, we have focused on how to connect with and persuade audiences to get things done. I now believe that we must also be thinking about how to inspire AI to help you achieve your goals.”

Shields, who is a recipient of MIT’s Teaching with Digital Technology award and a winner of the Jamieson Prize for Excellence in Teaching (MIT Sloan's most prestigious teaching award), says he is particularly proud of the work that he does with partners in the MIT Sloan Executive Education Program. He is involved in several executive education courses, including “Data-driven teams,” “The art and science of winning,” “Communication and persuasion in the digital age,” and “Maximizing your personal and professional productivity.”

He is also the Director of the Global Executive Academy (GEA), a two-week course offered every summer where business leaders from around the globe are given the opportunity to convene at the Institute for an intensive course on management and leadership. Last year there were more than 60 participants from over 22 countries. “The GEA is the best of MIT’s leadership and management curriculum and also an incredible opportunity to meet, connect, and network with executives from around the world,” says Shields.

Reflecting on his time at MIT—it has been nearly ten years since he accepted a role at the Institute--Shields says he has always appreciated the way MIT blends theory, knowledge, and practice, which dovetails nicely with his own background and approach.

“Having spent part of my career in industry, I highly value the relationships that MIT has with companies around the world through the MIT Industrial Liaison Program. Our ILP member companies make us better as an institute, because the dialogue that we have from an academic perspective with folks from industry makes our research and our teaching better, and we hope it makes our ILP member organizations better.”