Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Rise of the Machines

Recently I read with marked interest an article in The Guardian ( detailing new technology which produces computer-generated copy in journalism—particularly in sports and business reporting. The program can take raw statistics (baseball scores and stats, earnings statements, etc) and using artificial intelligence convert that information into a news article.

A company called Narrative Science has developed algorithms which enables the computer to “…not only to look at data but, based on general ideas of what is important and a close understanding of who the audience is, we are giving it the tools to know how to tell us stories.” The algorithms, which “marry advances in pattern recognition software with the revolution in natural language generation”, ultimately “…resemble a writer (minus the soul-searching and the procrastination and the deadline anxiety.” (Ouch!)

So what does this mean for us writers? Well, I guess it matters how you decide to spin it.

Initially, it may mean that some wire service stringers will be replaced by software which can capture and interpolate statistics from sports or business and create viable (and readable) UPI stories. However, I don’t see an awful lot of local papers (or even regional news outlets) necessarily being able to afford to purchase expensive software just to replace the intern who’s relegated to writing up baseball scores or business news.

But I’m sure that when this news gets around, writers by the score (and I don’t mean the baseball score) will be up in arms, protesting the potential subjugation of our authorly prerogatives. Cries of “no [expurgated] machine can tell a story as good as I!” will ring out across the landscape, with calls to ban this insidious threat before it—dare I say it—Rules the (literary) World.

Personally, I don’t see The Machines as a threat. If a software program can tell my story as well or better than I, I suppose I ought to turn in my Underwood (or my laptop, as the case may be) and try another line of endeavor. But I think, at least at this point in time, the algorithms lack one key ingredient in the creative process which we as writers possess—the ability to create something out of nothing. That flash of inspiration, the ability to turn a mere essence of an idea into a group of characters and a plot. I suppose it’s possible, and perhaps even inevitable, that down that the road the algorithms may develop to the point where someone can input “college girl”, “billionaire”, “bondage” and “erotica” and get the entire three volumes of 50 Shades of Grey plus the follow-on Grey. Who knows, perhaps that’s what happened in the first place.

But even if the algorithms do develop to that level of sophistication, they still have one hurdle to clear. Just like the rest of us, they’ll have to hunker down the query trenches, desperately crafting query after pixilated query, in an effort to get their deathless prose noticed by an agent, and then out into the world of the publisher. Good luck to ‘em, says me.

If they can manage that, The Machines deserve whatever they can get. 

Keith W. Willis
Author of fantasy novel TRAITOR KNIGHT (debuts Summer 2015 from Champagne Books BURST imprint).
twitter: @kilbourneknight

The more I learn about people, the better I like my dragon.


January Bain said...

Ah, you are right, Keith, machines cannot replace the spark of creation! Hugs, January

Olga Godim said...

I'm a journalist as well as a writer, and I don't see a threat either. Yes, a computer can generate a news item: when, where, what, who and why. Big deal. News is not journalism. Lots of people post news on the internet, but they can't replace journalists. Neither they nor a computer can write what I do: personal profiles of people in our community. My articles involve lots of creative decision. What to include, what to leave behind, what is pertinent to the article angle and what is not. Neither can computers do investigative journalism.
I was a computer programmer before I became a writer, and I can tell you with authority: a computer is only as smart as the programmer who wrote the code. That's why computer industry started with math. There is only one right answer there. But to write a really good story you need a human mind and human emotions.

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

A very thought-filled post, Keith -- as usual.