Gini Dietrich

Can Algorithms Replace Human Writers? (Part Two)

By: Gini Dietrich | June 12, 2012 | 

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, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • I think Artificial Intelligence will allow Web Generated Investigative Reporting one day. It might not have the human factor. Like what you posit here an algorithm can not interview someone. It can grab an online interview. Though not sure if that is legal or not vs collecting facts from online data.
    Not sure if things like intent, tone, and inflection will be present. But I can see how some areas of reporting will become commoditized. The Stock Lists and the Sports Scores are automated. So adding words to the equation is not a far stretch.
    And seriously there are things I feel are evolutionary. People shouldn’t be doing things they don’t have too be doing. Do we need someone assembling the local police report if it can be automated?

    • @HowieSPM This is exactly what they believe at Narrative Science. It’s inevitable. No, a computer can’t generate tone and inflection, but it can write stories that can be automated. Heck, I wrote the wedding announcements for the Omaha World-Herald in college. There is definitely a formula for that. It could be automated.

      •  @ginidietrich this will be interesting. Isn’t there that thesis that is you give a bunch of chimps typewriters and they type long enough randomly they will spit out shakespear someday?

  • I can see these stories being rife with misinterpreted data that makes people dumber rather than smarter. Humans do it all the time. Just look at infographics. And since people are creating these programs, there is that possibility. Can an algorithm really reach beyond the simplistic to create something of value, really tell a story. Or is it just going to be mindless drivel that no one will want to read.
    Perhaps I’m being snobbish about this, but I can’t see a computer built on 0’s and 1’s creating something interesting enough to grab my attention.

    • @Anthony_Rodriguez Unfortunately, it’s happening and you’re reading stuff generated by computers that you may not even realize. Look at their diagram above. It takes facts and data so it’s likely more accurate than if a human analyzes the same information. When I talked to their CEO, he used the example of grades. Your report card has always been grades only. Now it can be grades plus commentary on what you need to do, as compared to everyone else, to improve. Sure, a human could do this, but most don’t because of the sheer amount of time it takes.

      •  @ginidietrich  @Anthony_Rodriguez I keep reading the first sentence of Gini’s reply and I can’t help but wonder if she too is a robot.
        “Unfortunately, it’s happening and you’re reading stuff generated by computers that you may not even realize.”
        Help, I’m stuck in an endless loop!

        •  @fitzternet @ginidietrich @Anthony_Rodriguez I just thought the same! Gini is totally a cyborg. 

        •  @RebeccaTodd  @fitzternet  @Anthony_Rodriguez Well, crap. Now you know my secret. 

  • My main problem is this:
    Any activity that has little to no cost (read automate-able) inevitably is overdone and mis-used. Ultimately it becomes spam.
    Name me one marketing activity or channel where this isn’t true.
    The tech will find its way into the wrong hands and 5-10 years from now we’ll hate it.

    • @Sean McGinnis Funny that that’s your issue with it. My issue is computers replacing fiction and smart business authors. I guess it’s like anyone else. There will be above and below the board uses for it.

      •  @ginidietrich  @Sean I can see it now: Become a (Insert business category here) guru overnight! Our program will write e-books in your name! All original content! 

        •  @KenMueller @seanmcginnis @KenMueller An automation tool can be easily misused, but I think there’s real value in this sort of algorithmic content generation vehicle, particularly in heavily regulated industries like finance and insurance. 

      •  @ginidietrich  @Sean 
        The above and below the board uses will be bright-line distinct at the beginning and will blur over time. I’m less concerned with the below the board use of the tech and far more concerned with the above board use that (because adopt and use is frictionless and cost-free) becomes overdone.

        •  @Sean McGinnis  @ginidietrich  @Sean Can’t the same be said for *any* automation function? I understand the skepticism and distrust of automated tools b/c they’re used as bandaids, but like all things, it can be very effectively deployed within reason.  

        •  @jasonkonopinski  @ginidietrich  Yes. The same can be said of any automated function, which is exactly why i am saying it about this automated function. 🙂
          “Can be effectively deployed” is a far cry from “is effectively deployed.”  Find me a marketing channel or tactic that can be automated and that you believe IS effectively deployed.
          I’ll be standing over here in the corner (rotting away to nothing), awaiting your example…  😉

  • I’m sorry, I can’t comment right now… I’m still laughing at shiznit.

    And I’m still waiting for my IG thank you

    • @SociallyGenius You know that was a comment left on the original blog post!

  • I can get behind this approach as well.
    We may not notice but in fields like financial reporting content has to be published in a particular format. It’s just how things are and creativity is neither needed nor encouraged. And to be honest, anyone writing these things day in and day out would probably be an automaton
    So yeah, let’s get the algorithms cracking on these things.

    • Damn, I basically ripped off your example. Okay, lets see- how about weather reporting, UFO sightings and outbreak of hysteria over Justin Bieber and Twilight? Algorithms can whip up a report for each of them, methinks

      • @bhas Outbreaks over Justin Beiber. That just made me laugh out loud!

        Did you get some sleep last night?

        •  @ginidietrich Whatever you say about Bieber, you have to admit that the kid knows his social media. When you can trend on Twitter multiple times every month, and sometimes just for tweeting “Good Morning London” you might have cracked the  code.
          Now,  you just have to feed dates and places into the algorithm, have a readily available set of adjectives and adverbs that talk about crowds, autographs, teenage girls pelting bodyguards with bejewelled shit and voila, you got a Bieber story that will ring true from Adelaide to Atlanta
          I always sleep well. I have trouble waking up in the morning because of late nights, but I sleep like a champ. Under bright lights, loud sounds, swaying trains, earthquakes, phone calls…I slumber through. We are good pals, Morpheous and me

      •  @bhas @ginidietrich @RebeccaTodd Will computer generated content increase the total quantity coverage of Justin Bieber and Twilight or will c/g/c free up humans to cover more *um* innovative cultural subjects?

  • ginidietrich

    @SociallyGenius LOL!! You kill me.

  • While I totally get where they’re coming from in regards to algorithms writing stories that nobody wants to write, I can’t help but think that it will expand as people realize how easy it is to punch in data as opposed to doing the actual writing.
    Take you, for instance – what would you have written at the Omaha News-Herald if the wedding announcements were automated? Would that have eliminated your position?
    I’m thinking out loud. For all I know, that would’ve opened up more time for you to do real writing.
    Right now it’s Little League. But tomorrow it might be a feature story about a city’s finances.

    •  @bradmarley Sure, it would have eliminated my position, but really that would have been OK. I mean, I learned AP style, but it was a mindless job. If that had been the case, I would have done other writing that allowed me the same benefit and perhaps wasn’t as mindless. 

      •  @ginidietrich But that was back when newsrooms were still thriving. (I wasn’t making a joke about your age. Promise.)
        Now, if this technology takes off, it could eliminate entire newsrooms and take away the potential for college grads or entry level personnel to get that all-important foot in the door. That’s kind of where I was going with this.
        I wonder if Omaha World-Herald Gini would have thought it was NBD that her position was was being eliminated.

  • A computer might be able to capture the technique of writing, but it will never be able to capture the soul.

    •  @richescorner And that was his point when he said they’re not trying to short humans. Computers will never replace the tone or intent or color a human can provide.

  • I’ve always been in the camp that spells it BOOYAH. All caps and no “u.”

    •  @fitzternet Actually, that’s how I spell it too.

  • I am still not sold on it. There are ongoing problems now with the screening software that many companies use to sift through candidates to identify the best ones for particular positions. They miss good candidates who don’t use the right keywords.
    Sure, the AI can construct a story that people will read but the lack of ability to understand nuance is going to be problematic.
    If I write “I love you Geni, I wish you would spell your name properly” it is not going to know what my intent is. It won’t be able to determine if it is good natured teasing or if I am intentionally trying to upset you.
    I “love” technology but I am concerned about this being used to automate things that shouldn’t be automated. It is bad enough that investigative journalism is under fire because of a lack of resources this could make it worse.
    I can see this being used the same way the “computer” has replaced operators and customer service reps.

    •  @TheJackB But even if you write that sentence (I am going to beat you) not everyone will know the intent unless they subscribe to me on FB. And I don’t really know if it’s good-natured teasing or if you’re intentionally trying to hurt me (I hope it’s the former). 
      I think automation, in this sense, is good. I am afraid (and I said this on the phone with Stu) that this will get in the wrong hands. But the way Narrative Science is doing is not threatening, in the least, to any of us writers.

      •  @ginidietrich You are absolutely right that people can misinterpret and misunderstand it (I still want my three wishes) but as a person I am quite aware of what could happen.
        So I am going to be careful to qualify it so that you understand that it is good natured teasing and not supposed to upset you. AI isn’t going to be aware of those things. You can’t program sensitivity.
        My concern isn’t just the wrong hands it is as I mentioned earlier, I think that in an effort to save cash/improve productivity it will be used in place of people where it shouldn’t be.

  • Two forces seemingly at odds can find a way to coexist and maybe even compliment each other? How improbable. By the way, when is the DVD player going to put the movie theaters out of business?

    •  @barryrsilver Jeez, Barry. It’s Blu-Ray. DVDs are so 2010.

      • rustyspeidel

         @ginidietrich  @barryrsilver So is Blu-Ray. Hulu and HBO Go are already doing a good job.

        •  @rustyspeidel  @barryrsilver It was a joke, Rusty. A JOKE!

        • rustyspeidel

           @ginidietrich  @barryrsilver hahahaha. you guys kill me. [slaps knee, coughs up laugh.] 

        •  @rustyspeidel  @barryrsilver LOL! Brat.

        •  @ginidietrich  @rustyspeidel  @barryrsilver Meh..Hulu is so now. What you need is the eyePhone, brought by Mom Corp which will stream HD content across your retina.
          Call me when the lines begin

  • gstene

    @ginidietrich define “story” – a computer may replicate fact- imitate styles- but I guess it takes some time until it get free will 😉

    • ginidietrich

      @gstene Yes…and that’s the point. It can generate facts and data, but not tone or intention

      • gstene

        @ginidietrich puh… We agree!

  • I want a Pulitzer……….but I’m ok letting the computer write it if all I have to do is show up at the party to get all the love………..true story………

    •  @bdorman264 You know what? If you can make that happen, I’ll be happy to join you at your party!

  • GrizzardComm

    In which we learn Gini does not strive to cover Little League. RT @ginidietrich Can Algorithms Replace Human Writers?

    • ginidietrich

      @GrizzardComm Ha!

  •  @ginidietrich The title was a turnoff (being a writer) and forced me to read (kudos, on the headline). And it’s difficult to keep the cynic quiet here but Stuart Frankel airs some interesting points. The most important bit is: <b>We’re not shorting humans.</b>
    As it stands, I’m OK with computer generated content. This still involves “man” + machine … <em>Manchine</em>. Technology has been a complimentary tool to the arts for centuries, why’s everyone balking at this one?
    If you dislike this advancement there are other opportunities. <b>Find your niche.</b> Don’t beat the bush, beat around the bush. E.g. This tech might make your human-to-human content marketing strategy <em>that</em> much better, and more valuable.

    • Apologies. (Didn’t know html was not supported)

      •  @TopherJRyan I love that you added the HTML code. I think Livefyre is working on supporting it soon!

    •  @TopherJRyan This is exactly where I’ve ended on this debate. Machines have been replacing humans for decades. We can either accept it and (to your point) find our niche or we can fight it and be left behind.

  • Wow, that’s awesome that he called you.  That’s the way to do it.  There’s a crisis communications story behind this story.  

    • Oh, and I spell it “shiznits”  think it’s plural like “deer.”  Maybe that’s something for the FakeAPStyle people… 🙂 

    •  @Frank_Strong It’s a really good communications strategy. It started with an email from his marketing person. She said she’d read the blog post and she’d like to add another angle to it. I’m glad she did. It softened my view!

  • ginidietrich

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

    • Frank_Strong

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

      • ginidietrich

        @Frank_Strong The crazies, as I call them.

        • Frank_Strong

          @ginidietrich Proud to be one of them!

  • 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.

    •  @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. 

      • rustyspeidel

         @ginidietrich That’s very different than ghost writing content. 

        •  @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.

  • 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.

    •  @annedreshfield I think it’s going to be interesting to see what happens. My opinion is eventually anything that can be written solely by data will be generated by computers. Machines replaced humans in manufacturing, but there still is a place for people to work in the industry. I think the same thing will happen here.

  • HollywoodGlee

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

  • Pingback: Find Your Brand's Cheerleaders()

  • 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 least for a while.      😀

    •  @4uthebest1 Yes, and that was my point. The computer won’t write a Pulitzer-winning novel, but it can write earnings reports.

  • annelizhannan

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

  • openbrackets

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

    • nigelcameron

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

      • openbrackets

        @nigelcameron @ginidietrich 🙂 hmmm there’s def s/t to that #startupidea

  • 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.

    •  @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. 

      •  @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.

  • ginidietrich

    @nigelcameron Ha!

  • 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! 🙂

    •  @hackmanj VERY good analogy. Very, very good.

  • 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.

    • rdopping

      @geoffliving We can always start an underground organization. We will write on paper with pens and pass our work between us by carrier pigeon. Ha. Kidding but it would be funny.

    •  @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.  

    •  @geoffliving It’s like anything else, right? Machines replaced some humans in the car manufacturing plants, but people still have jobs with the automakers. It’s all part of evolution.

  • CommsPond

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

    • ThePaulSutton

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

      • CommsPond

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

    • ginidietrich

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

  • 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. 

  • ginidietrich

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

    • 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

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

        • 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

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

        • ThePaulSutton

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

        • ginidietrich

          @ThePaulSutton That actually would be a really cool experiment

        • ThePaulSutton

          @ginidietrich i know. Do it, Gini… :o)

  • 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.

    • rdopping

      Damn. See even the auto correct on my smartphone is ruling what I write. Goddess. Well, ok but I meant to say good on ya.

    •  @rdopping The computers don’t generate opinion or journalism. They only follow a structure based on data and facts. There isn’t an opinion about it…that’s where humans come in.

  • 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.

    •  @Tinu When I first read about it, I read it as algorithms would replace humans entirely. But, after talking to their CEO, I realize it’s really writing the stuff we can’t manage to write anyway.

  • MPSteerman

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

    • ginidietrich

      @MPSteerman Ha!

  • 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!

    • rdopping

       @Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing Late or not, that hilarious. Spock indeed! This one will likely take a tad longer, like never, perhaps.

    •  @Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing Exactly! I don’t have a problem with this if it’s not replacing my blog writing. And, right now, it’s not.

  • Pingback: The Art, Science, and Dumb Luck of Timing()

  • Pingback: CEOs that engage make a remarkable difference | Sword and the Script()

  • Pingback: The Public Relations Robot – Coming to an agency near you June 2027 | Global Result Communication()

  • NunahMikhail

    In tell to ply you with the maximal take of personnel in essay activity, employs exclusive skillful pedagogue writers to energy on your distribution. <a href=””>narrative essay topics</a>

  • NunahMikhail

    In tell to ply you with the maximal take of personnel in essay activity, employs exclusive skillful pedagogue writers to energy on your distribution. for more information visit now

  • Pingback: How Will You Adapt to Technology Replacing Humans? « MindCorp | Newsfeed()