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Gini Dietrich

Can Algorithms Replace Human Writers? (Part Two)

By: Gini Dietrich | June 12, 2012 | 
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A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about Narrative Science and the idea around algorithms replacing humans for news stories.

At the time, I based my cynical piece (as is my custom) on the things I’d read in Wired, Crain’s, Slate, and The Atlantic.

My biggest issue with the company is the idea that a computer could replace, not only part of my livelihood, but my passion. But where the really interesting conversation happened was in the comments (as is always the case).

Some of the comments included things such as:

  • An algorithm can’t say words such as shiznit and bouyah.
  • If keywords and SEO are all that’s important, a computer does that better than humans.
  • Could computer-based writing become better at facts than humans?
  • We don’t know enough about the art of language to make a computer that knows it even better than humans.
  • This is a copout, a new way to spam, and users will see through it, get tired of it, and move away.
  • Will this be 90  percent because people will be writing that much less content? Or is that a 9x increase in content, rewritten and repurposed by machines? (In response to their founder saying 90 percent of all content will be written by computers in the next 15 years.)
  • The nuances and subtle touches that go into story telling aren’t something that you can teach.

And you know what? I agreed with all of these comments. You can’t teach a computer the things humans can do with the language. What’s next? A Pulitzer Prize for the pretty black laptop over there in the corner?

And Then…

I took a phone call from Stuart Frankel, the CEO at Narrative Science. It’s pretty rare anyone gets me on the phone if they’re not on my team, a client, or a prospect we’re likely to close soon. So the fact that I spent nearly an hour on the phone with him speaks volumes for what they’re doing over there.

And he changed my mind. Not entirely (I still don’t think a computer-based story could win a Pulitzer), but I’m thinking about it differently now.

He started off by showing me the process they use in order to create a computer-based story.

What’s interesting about this process is all of these pieces have to be there in order for the computer to write stories about Little League games or earnings reports or real estate in smaller markets that don’t typically get attention.

For instance, Forbes will do earnings reports for the Fortune 50 every quarter, but every other public company gets ignored because they don’t have the time, the human resources, or the budget to focus on everyone else.

An algorithm can take the data, the facts, the stats, and the angles and create a structure around earnings reports for the other 450 Fortune 5oo companies. And it can do it in seconds.

So why not let a computer write something no one was going to write anyway, but people are interested in reading about? It doesn’t matter if it’s five or 500 people because it takes so little time to produce.

Algorithms are writing stories humans either don’t want to write or don’t have the time to write…and they’re doing it in four seconds instead of 40 minutes.

It’s Inevitable

I consider myself pretty forward-thinking when it comes to technology. I love new advances, tools, and changes…especially if it means I’m going to get more efficient at my job.

So I try to keep an open mind, especially when it’s something that rubs me the wrong way like this has done.

Stu said:

We think if a story can be generated by data, it will be. We’re not shorting humans. We can generate parts of a story from the data that a computer is better at pulling, and a human can add the color or interviews conducted to broaden the appeal.

So I’ve softened my opinion. There are plenty of parents and grandparents who want the play-by-play of the Little League game the local paper just can’t write. Now they can have all of the information they need.

It doesn’t mean my livelihood or passion is affected. After all, I’m gunning for a Pulitzer (someday), not the Little League game recaps or Fortune company earnings reports.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

106 comments
NunahMikhail
NunahMikhail

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Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR

Ack. I''m so late to the party, it's not even funny, so I'll state my case and leave...I see this type of writing replacing the wire services as filler for those media that need stories and no longer have reporters. I can see the crime pages filling up with computer-generated police reports turned into an article of a sort or other pieces taken from computerized records, too. What is never possible is the human touch and contact that derives storytelling, nuance, emotion, verve, and passion. Look how long it took Spock to get a feeling!

MPSteerman
MPSteerman

@markwschaefer @ginidietrich If #SIRI is any guide, then Gini has nothing to worry about.

Tinu
Tinu

I can understand that - if it's a job no one wants to do that needs doing, that's fine. I think we need humans in the process and always will, especially where storytelling is concerned.

rdopping
rdopping

Hey Gini. Thanks for using my made up words in your post. Well, if you've softened your position goddess on ya. What scares me is the enormity of data already available without computers generating opinion and journalism. Where does it end when that starts? You know, one Co does it and it's successful. Next thing you know there are hundreds of news orgs out their pounding out publications. Sure we need to filter, I get that. Hey, maybe a bunch of new search engines will emerge to help us manage the whole mess.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@ThePaulSutton What do you think about the algorithms writing news stories?

RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

I'm not sure how I did not recall this earlier, and don't see any references here.  Do you recall the Versificator of Orwell's 1984? It was a computer program that wrote literature and music for the proles. This has made me take agin this whole notion. 

CommsPond
CommsPond

@ThePaulSutton @ginidietrich did a demo with them a few weeks back. Proper impressed with what they're doing.

geoffliving
geoffliving

This post touched on a nerve, a great fear that somehow man will be replaced by machine.  This goes back to Isaac Asimov and his Robot series and lives in the modern vernacular with the Terminator and the Matrix. I don't doubt your findings, and thank you for sharing them.  I read the negative comments and doubts, and while not outright dismissing them, do associate them with this larger fear of man vs. machine.

hackmanj
hackmanj

I'll keep an open mind but this comes to mind: if you're not an artist your a commodity. That is not original to me though, I heard it at SOBCON. I wish I could properly attribute. Maybe someone will notice and properly credit the brilliant person that said that.

 

Algorithms will be commodities, humans will continue to have the artistic edge. The same way we can appreciate hand made goods more than those that came off a machine....

 

Booyah! :)

AmyMccTobin
AmyMccTobin

Ugh... I know I should be 'forward thinking,' but it seems to me that they are not only stories that no human will write, but that no human will read.   Perhaps I'll come around... just not now.

openbrackets
openbrackets

@nigelcameron @ginidietrich hi there instead of more torrential info output these news algos should be apps made bespoke by users...! :)

annelizhannan
annelizhannan

@TedWeismann @ginidietrich @SpinSucks I couldn't comment with conviction...torn...agreed with most comments. She is the Dietrichster.

4uthebest1
4uthebest1

The imperfections & ingenuity humans insinuate into their narrative words make it appealing to readers and detract from the art of communication. Note the differences in purpose, appeal & interests between the examples sited in a Fortune 50 article and "50 Shades of Gray", sit back in the comfort we won't be replaced..at least for a while.      :D

HollywoodGlee
HollywoodGlee

Interesting @ginidietrich Movies too. I add clips and software has the capability to arrange it without my input.

annedreshfield
annedreshfield

This is a really interesting post, Gini. It sounds like I'm in the same boat you were in initially: skeptical, eyebrows raised, maybe even already shaking your head no (I am!). After reading through it, though, I do think I might be able to soften my opinion a bit. It's true -- there's so many people and so many interests that can and should be covered, but just not enough people to write the content. If this were a "mundane" writing task, I suppose a computer could do it. How, then, do we determine what is mundane enough? Will computers take over the updating, fact-checking, and polishing of Wikipedia articles? Should we trust a computer to complete something that so many people reference so often? I'm not sure. It's an interesting thought, though.

rustyspeidel
rustyspeidel

OK, this is probably a toxic comment, but this feels like Spam-o-Matic™ to me. There is already SOOOO much content hitting the air every day, and even though I SORT of agree with the local coverage angle, this thing just doesn't FEEL right. It feels lazy, opportunistic, corporate, and cynical. "Let us do the writing so you don't have to!" It's efficiency run amok, one step past those companies that ghostwrite overnight from a garrett in India. Me no likey. Can't justfify why, really, just no likey.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@Frank_Strong I think they were especially sensitive to the comments. Which means they're paying attention!

ThePaulSutton
ThePaulSutton

@ginidietrich Difficult to say without seeing it. Sounds like you'd totally lose the human touch of writing. But maybe i'm wrong?

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@CommsPond As much as it hurts me personally, I'm impressed with what they're doing, too @ThePaulSutton

ThePaulSutton
ThePaulSutton

@commspond @ginidietrich It's certainly an interesting area. Doesn't sound feasible on paper, but must be quite awesome to see?

TheJackB
TheJackB

 @geoffliving I don't know that I would characterize it as a fear of the machine because the machine has no feelings, no intent and no ability to "touch" us.

The concern is about how the machine will be used by people.  

Latest blog post: Those Three Words

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @AmyMccTobin Think about it from this perspective: Let's say you're a Fortune 500 company listed at 415. Forbes and Fortune only cover the top 50 companies. With this technology, your earnings reports are now covered. That's important to you, to your employees, and to your shareholders. But it's not important to the layperson. 

nigelcameron
nigelcameron

@openbrackets @ginidietrich Hey, let's take personalization a step further: Here's the news as you would like it to be. #startupidea

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @rustyspeidel That's how I felt initially, but I really was impressed with the work they're doing. He talked to me about a franchise client that has hundreds of locations. They can take the data from a day's worth of sales in the entire organization and drive it down so they can see what's selling best in other locations in their same city, state, or region. This is stuff not already done because it's too laborious for a human to do it. But it's very valuable to the franchisee. 

Frank_Strong
Frank_Strong

@ginidietrich Definitely. Great point. The comments and discussion on @SpinSucks is really a phenomenon. Have "met" so many people there.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@ThePaulSutton You do on the stories like earnings reports. But I think that's OK. No one wants to write those anyway

CommsPond
CommsPond

@ThePaulSutton @ginidietrich depends on the dataset certainly, but those that I saw were indeed awesome - and generated in seconds

AmyMccTobin
AmyMccTobin

 @ginidietrich I get it... and I'm glad I don't need to read those reports.  If computers start to write stories and marketing verbiage, I'm out like Thoreau.

openbrackets
openbrackets

@nigelcameron @ginidietrich :) hmmm there's def s/t to that #startupidea

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@Frank_Strong The crazies, as I call them.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@ThePaulSutton That actually would be a really cool experiment

ThePaulSutton
ThePaulSutton

@ginidietrich it would make an interesting experiment though. See what engagement you got without disclosing it was written by computer...

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@ThePaulSutton Um, never! I like to write. I don't want a computer doing it for me.

ThePaulSutton
ThePaulSutton

@ginidietrich yeah, i guess there's a place for this. As with everything, there's a balance. So when's Spin Sucks going automated?

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @rustyspeidel This isn't ghost-writing content. I hope I didn't give that impression because that's not what it is. Look at their process. It's about data and facts that are taken and compiled into a structure. The human can then add color and interviews. Nothing about it is ghost written.

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