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Will Writers Become Obsolete?

November 24, 2013

That’s the question enlivening discussion on a Linked In group for journalists in mid-November. Someone posted to the group an article by Julie Segovia from the website Ink’d titled, Invasion of the Writer Snatchers. The article asked the question “Can stories produced by modern-day robots stand in lieu of those written by humans?”

It described the software platform Quill, designed by a Chicago-based company called Narrative Science Inc. The software has the potential to automatically generate stories that hinge on data, such as baseball games, real estate, financial services, marketing services, and intelligence (the industry, not the quality).

Segovia’s article states that the health care, retail, and pharmaceutical industries have indicated interest in the software, and that the reason for such interest is obvious: robots, or bots, as Segovia calls them, are cheaper than humans. They won’t demand raises, health insurance or a retirement plan. They will never take vacations or request time off to tend to a sick child.

The Narrative Science website states:

Quill applies complex and sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms that extract the key facts and interesting insights from the data and transforms them into stories. The resulting content is as good or better than your best analyst, and is produced at a scale and speed only possible with technology – technology that is now patented.

In a sense, this is not news to me. I was aware many years ago of so-called “canned” astrology reports, built on a person’s birth data. Astrologers use these reports to provide basic information quickly and cheaply, in the hopes of getting the person who asked for the report to come in for a longer, more personalized (and more expensive) chart reading. What Quill is doing is a more sophisticated application of the astrology report writer.

One person in our Linked In group said that he could see Quill making stories out of baseball box scores, but that he could not see a robot reporter covering a local school board meeting. That is where I jumped in to disagree. I have covered a lot of school board meetings, and, now that government meetings are audio and video recorded for broadcast, I foresee the day when a robot that has been given the agenda and the recordings writes a story. We only await voice recognition software, now a standard feature on new PCs, to accurately transcribe multiple voices rather than one it is trained to understand now. That day is coming because journalists want that capability, so programmers are working on it.

In the end, computer-generated news stories will be accepted if the public, or a targeted industry readership wants them. So the questions are: what does the readership want and why? Do people care about whether the source of their news is human or mechanical?

One member of our group said that he did not see software programs such as Quill ever creating stories of a type deeper than syndicated AP wire copy. AP wire copy is vital to short-staffed community and college radio news departments that depend on volunteers. One can criticize the journalistic depth of most “rip and read” stories, but humans are now writing that copy. Replacing the writers with software will not raise the quality; It will just eliminate jobs.

If the software can do no better than that—they may do better in 10, 20, or 50 years—and software widely replaces human reporters for cost control reasons, will people miss human journalists? If people can be deliberately trained by corporations, or ingrained from habit, to expect and want only the quality of writing they are given, and if future generations read only a level of writing that would have been considered substandard in the past, will human journalists even have a chance in a world driven by the corporate bottom line?

The “big data”-based story is the type most easily handled mechanically, and we know that these days, “big data” is all the rage. But human reporters are being trained to deal with “big data”. The organization Investigative Reporters and Editors has been holding workshops and boot camps on CAR – Computer Aided Reporting— since long before Quill was invented. There are some things that computers do better than humans, but writing and analyzing data is not necessarily one of them, at least at the moment.

Still, according to Segovia’s article, Kris Hammond, a co-founder of Narrative Science Inc., doesn’t believe readers will have to miss even high quality writing when robots replace human writers. He has boldly predicted that “[i]n five years, a computer program will win a Pulitzer Prize — and I’ll be damned if it’s not our technology.”

I believe that is wishful thinking on Hammond’s part because I do not believe machines can acquire the imagination and emotional depth of a quality human writer. Of course, I may be indulging in a bit of wishful thinking myself. The quality of human writing is declining and has been, long before PCs and the Internet came along. It is declining with the general decline in the quality of education.

One of our members, David Rosman, writes editorials for the Columbia Missourian and book reviews for the New York Journal of Books. He said, “The art of writing has evolved. I am reading a new book, ‘The letters of John F. Kennedy’ by Martin Sandler, and am becoming very aware of how our language and styles have changed. One of the reasons I personally enjoy reading the “classics” is for the language.

In journalism, long-form reporting is becoming a lost art. We are hit with 140 characters from CNN, Washington Post and the AP with little, if any, follow-up. We are losing magazines and the analysis of political, economic and social issues. Even the Onion has lost some of its charm by going 100-percent digital. We are getting stories in bits and pieces, much of which seems unconnected or a rehash of old news. As the cycle becomes shorter, as events in Syria are reported with the same emphasis as a shooting in Seattle with little follow-up, we lose sight of the meaning of both.

People are hungry for information and entertainment, something the written word does better than other media. Writing will not die, but continue to evolve to meet the wants of an audience that is moving too fast for its own good.”

One can blame technology for shaping the unfortunate changes in writing that we have seen lately. But technology facilitates the desires of its users. The 140 character limit of tweets and texts made us write Bingo instead of English; “Before” is now B4″. But look to humans, not technology, to see who is to blame for a world full of fast pace and tiny space. The “audience that is moving too fast for its own good” crams its life with much useless information, even as it develops a technology-induced ADD that makes it prey to sound bite politics instead of investigative journalism.

I am a Baby Boomer. Computers came into my life in middle age, long after my habits were supposedly set. Yet I mutter, “Oh radio interviewee, why did your book have to be over 400 pages long?” Yes, the Internet does change your brain. But my choice to spend 8 or more hours a day on a computer facilitates that change.

What happens to the generations that follow mine? Will they still want to read the classics for the language? Or will they take a “Just the facts, Ma’am” approach, not caring if the purveyor of those facts is man or machine?

We use artificial intelligence (AI) to make machines more like people, while at the same time, employers, especially, demand people to be more like machines—to multitask, to not have human needs to eat or go to the bathroom while at work, to not want vacations or sick leave. Why can’t people be people and machines be machines, each doing what they do best?

Assisting humans in performing precision work, such as surgery, and replacing humans when it is too dangerous (Fukushima’s crippled reactors) or otherwise not feasible for them to be physically present (exploring Mars) is the proper purview of robotics.

Replacing humans in tasks that people can capably do, such as writing, raises questions about what we are supposed to do, especially in a money and jobs-based society in which we are expected to “earn a living”. But even in a fully demonetized society, the question would remain if robots did it all for us. With governments looking to robotize war, we might not even be fit for cannon fodder in 100 years. Will we become the obese lounger-bound consumers of the movie Wall-E?

Will people become obsolete?


About the author: Kellia Ramares-Watson is an independent journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of the e-book Eating Poison: Food, Drugs and Health. Her next major project will be an e-book called Demonetization: Ending the Cult of Commodity. She can be reached at theendofmoney[at]gmail.com.

5 Responses to Will Writers Become Obsolete?

  1. Yahoo Groups on March 11, 2014 at 10:59 pm

    In terms of the entertainment industry, we’re already seeing writers be made obsolete by “reality” television shows and half-arsed amateur hour contests. I’m thinking that technology (CGI avatars) will someday replace actors too. Look at “Forrest Gump,” and how convincing the editing was when Tom Hanks was added to scenes with JFK and Nixon. That was 20 years ago. Editing technologies and CGI have made leaps and bounds since 1994. The next step will be to cut the real Tom Hanks out of the picture and replace him with a CGI doppelganger. It might be interesting (or creepy?) nonetheless to mix dead actors with living ones — that long-awaited threequel to “Airplane” might happen yet — but no less creepy and no less detrimental to the human race. I wonder if there’ll still be a human audience to watch the remake of “Casablanca” starring Lauren Bacall and… George Clooney? John Cusack? Leo DiCaprio? Or Bogey and (dog forbid) Lindsay Lohan?!?

    Then there’s the possibility that voice synthesis coupled with AutoTune might replace singers and musicians. MIDI software has long been able to somewhat replicate the sound of an orchestra or house band; this was since the 1980s or so, right, when Finale came on the scene? The 1970s when Frampton wowed audiences with his Vocoder? Audio technology has come a long way since then. It has had good effects — the heartwarming sound of Natalie Cole performing “Unforgettable” with her deceased father comes to mind — but inevitably there will be bad ones too.

    The Screen Actors Guild and WGA will cease to exist. Quill will buy Final Draft and spit out screenplays of, well, Hollywood quality (which isn’t saying much). Pixar will make actors obsolete, and programming algorithms will take the place of the director. Then and only then will the union-busting rethugs in California make the onetime People’s Republic a “right to work” state. And all the old fogies like — oh, I dunno, 80-year-old Jennifer Lawrence? — will be saying, “who the hell wants to hear computer actors talk?”

    For now at least, we’re still singing… and dancing… in the rain…….!

  2. David Rosman on November 30, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    I foresee a future where the use of technology will plateau, when the human experience will become more important than the technology to get there. It is the old technology that will prevail into the future.

    My grandfather cut his own quills just after World War I and sent me an e-mail before he died. But I will always cherish the letters I received written in his hand as more personal than any email received today. Even this reply to Kellia’s essay does not have the impact as would a hand-written letter.

    We are inundated with so much information that her “ADD” assessment is a sad reality. Our language has been strained and I look forward to a handwritten letter from someone, anyone. Writing should take time, effort and forethought. Writing a Tweet about the Chinese usurping airspace over the South China Sea does not.

    It is my belief that the main problem with today’s American political system is that people are not relying on the entire story. Most read the headlines and maybe the opening paragraph, but not much more. We need the more and the contrasting opinions to make informed decisions.

    The use of programs like Quill will not enhance our knowledge base but deny it the essentials of the facts, the opinions and the analysis we need so badly.

  3. jamese on November 25, 2013 at 12:53 am

    I agree, for the most part. But replacing humans is what capitalists do in a poorly regulated capitalist economy.

  4. SteveH on November 25, 2013 at 12:40 am

    We should all take care; certainly the next generation should. None of us may have jobs someday — unless we’re a piece of software.

    • Kellia on November 30, 2013 at 10:58 am

      Steve H. and Jamese – Due to technology We will increasing not have JOBS in the money-jobs system, while we will still have the outmoded cultural norm that everyone — except mothers in a heterosexual marriage to a worker — must “earn a living”. We all can have WORK to do — we all want to be useful in some way — but there may not be paying demand for what we do. For example, a day care worker is paid, albeit poorly, while a stay-at-home mom who does the same tasks and more, is not. The money-jobs system makes no sense at all as a system of compensation for time expended in doing certain tasks for others.

      It doesn’t even make sense in terms of compensation according to societal importance of the tasks. For example, compare farm workers and hedge fund managers. All human beings need to eat and we must have fruits and veggies to stay healthy. Therefore, harvesting of same is of vital interest to everyone. Yet farm workers are at the bottom of the economic barrel, even though their work is hard and at times dangerous. Hedge fund managers can make millions of dollars per hour manipulating paper for a relatively few members of society! How long in human history have hedge funds existed? Would the human race be able to survive well without them? I think so. Are the managers even taking any physical risks to do their work? Maybe damage to their livers from too many three-martini lunches, but that’s all.

      The money-jobs system must be replaced with a demonetized gift economy or most of us will become obsolete in the global corporatist state. And that means death.

      Why must we pay to live on the planet we’re born on? Why must we earn a living when we are already living? Who is anyone that we must be profitable to them in order to get resources to survive? I am an American. I take the words of the Declaration of Independence very seriously. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” (and I use the word “men” generically to include women.)

      People all over the world must confront these questions and reach conclusions beyond “Because that’s the way it is.”

      Learn more at my website. Demonetization: Ending the Cult of Commodity http://endingthecultbook.wordpress.com/

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