Gini Dietrich

Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story than Humans?

By: Gini Dietrich | May 10, 2012 | 
101

My dear friend Carmen Benitez sent a story to me a couple of weeks and I’ve had to take that long to really absorb it.

You see, it’s about algorithms becoming better storytellers than journalists, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

A couple of months ago, I was speaking to a group of business leaders. One of the attendees told me he pays $50 a day to an Indian firm to have them scrape content off the Internet and change it “a little bit” so he can post it on his own blog.

When I asked him if he had issues with the ethics (or lack thereof) behind taking someone else’s content he said, “If you don’t want people to use it, don’t put it on the web.”

I was so distracted by this that I had a hard time finishing my speech.

My point is human beings are always looking for faster and easier ways to do things. We find this in get rich quick schemes, in lose weight fast diets, and in comparing ourselves to those we perceive to have achieved overnight success.

And now we’re creating algorithms to write stories?

From the Wired article:

Had Narrative Science — a company that trains computers to write news stories—created this piece, it probably would not mention that the company’s Chicago headquarters lie only a long baseball toss from the Tribune newspaper building. Nor would it dwell on the fact that this potentially job-killing technology was incubated in part at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Those ironies are obvious to a human. But not to a computer.

But, as it turns out, some niche publications, including Forbes and other media powerhouses (who are remaining private) , have hired Narrative Science to write stories.

Right now it’s limited to Little League game results, where the stories are “written” from data entered by parents into a game scoring app called GameChanger. But the founder, fellow Utahan and Chicagoan Kristian Hammond, says in the next 15 years, 90 percent of all news stories will be written by computers.

As a newly minted author (Marketing in the Round is officially out!), blogger, and content developer, this pains me.

If we look towards a future of only 10 percent of news created by human beings, where does that leave those of us who love to write?

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.

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101 responses to “Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story than Humans?”

  1. News stories created entirely from data inputed by humans? How boring would that be to read? I need something that can appeal to all my senses. In the example of GameChanger, how will I know if the weather played a factor in the game? How will I know if there was an outstanding play that had no bearing on the statistics of the game? The sights and sounds of the game are just as important, if not more, than the box score. And I just don’t see how an algorithm can replicate that.
     
    Keep Human Writers!

    • ginidietrich says:

      @Anthony_Rodriguez The Wired article uses an example: 
      Friona fell 10-8 to Boys Ranch in five innings on Monday at Friona despite racking up seven hits and eight runs. Friona was led by a flawless day at the dish by Hunter Sundre, who went 2-2 against Boys Ranch pitching. Sundre singled in the third inning and tripled in the fourth inning … Friona piled up the steals, swiping eight bags in all …
       
      It doesn’t read like a computer wrote it. So imagine if it gets better at the types of things you say and begins to add in those elements. It could be pretty scary for those of us who love to write!

      • mayashoucair says:

         @ginidietrich it does a little bit though. and that’s only sports news, so it’s a little bit easier to write by algorithm. i doubt a computer could write anything like your blog posts or real news stories. it is a pretty scary thought though.

        • ginidietrich says:

           @mayashoucair I shall take that as a compliment. Thank you! I think the 90% number is probably a bit inflated, but I can see how the next 15 years would allow technology to make computers even better at this. Now if we could just get a sarcasm font…

      • KenMueller says:

         @ginidietrich There are enough clues in that story to make you think an inexperienced writer wrote it, or at least someone who doesn’t understand baseball.

      • @ginidietrich @Anthony_Rodriguez I’d love to have a rap battle with that algorithm… I’d take it to school!

      • ClayMorgan says:

         @ginidietrich Gini, this example isn’t too far off from what we get from humans.
         
        At our paper, we write a “story” for every youth sports game. The “story” is written by a sports reporter who is taking information – scores, stats, and the obligatory quote – from information sent in by the youth team coaches. The stories are not much different than what you quote.
         
        So, playing devil’s advocate (or an editor in a cash-strapped industry), should I pay a couple bucks to let a computer churn those stories out, or should I pay a $20/hour reporter to do them – a reporter who can be writing a great sports feature or covering sports that have larger audiences, and ostensibly larger reader appeal?
         
        Could this not also work for basic city council or school board coverage? Not big issues but the routine things? What about “getting a press release” in good enough shape to publish? Or typing up the notes from the Garden Club? These are all important “stories” for the paper. Can I use a computer program, which would allow me to focus the reporters on something more?
         
        Again, just devil’s advocate.
         
        I’m not saying software is the best approach and I do not believe a computer can write better than a professional writer (I have to make that distinction – the computer probably can write better than a few people). I believe our society as a rule has a problem and this is an extension – we’re always looking to technology to “improve things” but we accept that technology makes things easier without asking, “is this really better?”
         
        “Scraping” is a different matter – that’s just theft in my view.

        • ginidietrich says:

           @ClayMorgan This is an interesting view…especially from someone who makes his living writing. I don’t disagree with you. And I do think technology advances are going to make it more “human,” if you will. But it scares me that, in 15 years, only 10% of content could be written by humans.

        • ClayMorgan says:

           @ginidietrich My suspicion is an ever-increasing amount of “routine” content will be produced by software.  However, I don’t think software will every be able to produce content that includes judgment, emotion, human observation and “being on the scene.”
           
          When you read the sports story you quoted there’s nothing wrong with it. However, a reporter on the scene can capture the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” The reporter can capture the emotion and the enormity of the moment. He or she can determine what the angle is, or what the story beneath the story, is.

        • ginidietrich says:

           @ClayMorgan True…but can a computer ever capture that? Narrative Science thinks so.

        • ClayMorgan says:

           @ginidietrich I hope not, but I guess we’ll find out.  I just think (hope?) that there are aspects of the human experience – aspects that a truly great writer can capture – that a computer can’t duplicate or understand.
          But then again, when I first became a reporter, “fast” communication was a fax, so who knows?

  2. KenMueller says:

    I’ll be interested to see how this pans out. What about ‘voice’? personality? anecdotes? idioms? humor?

    • ginidietrich says:

       @KenMueller Oh you know I totally agree. But I’m trying to set aside my personal feelings on this and look at it from a technology advances really quickly standpoint. Could it eventually get there? Maybe so. Personally it makes me sick to my stomach. 

  3. Well if we want to read more boring factually regurgitated stories, then it will work out fine. It’s all about shortcuts and efficiency but an algorithm isn’t going to replace us. Yeah, I’m sure some jobs will be lost, but there will always be a place for great writers like us…errr, I mean you

    • ginidietrich says:

       @SociallyGenius Why is it still not pulling up your latest conversation?? GRRRR!
       
      I’d like to think this won’t replace 90 percent of humans, like the article says. But I also know how quickly technology is advancing. Maybe they do find a way to make it work in the next 15 years. I hope not, but it’s not impossible. 

  4. Wow! Seriously baffled by the complete stupidity of that business owner.
    No copyright on the internet I guess. Wonder how he would feel if people came to his stores, picked stuff up and walked away with it.
     
    I applaud you for finishing your speech @ginidietrich I would have a blast with such an idiot.
     

    • ginidietrich says:

       @John Falchetto I had a really hard time with it. I was shocked. I didn’t want to debate him in front of 200 people, so I just shook my head and kept going. I have the anti-scraper plug-in installed here so I know people steal our stuff all the time. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

  5. JayDolan says:

    I can already see people accusing the algorithm of liberal or conservative bias.

  6. DMVM says:

    Yes!  But I’m bias, because I wrote one

  7. PaulLint says:

    I dont know what to say… his response to you questioning his ethics is baffling!? i hope deep down he was being sarcastic or trying to bring some humour into your talk. Im surprised you didnt ask him to leave after saying that

    • ginidietrich says:

       @PaulLint No, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t being sarcastic. He really thinks there isn’t anything wrong with it. He calls it curating content.

  8. bradmarley says:

    Great post, Gini. I explored this very same topic on my blog last week. (Shameless plug.) Although, I tried to relate it to how it would affect PR people. But there’s a real threat to writers. Probably more so.
     
    It’s like, once humans find a way to automate something, there’s no turning back. Which is why I don’t trust Hammond in the Wired article when he asks how many reporters we see at Little League games.
     
    That’s not the point. The point is that, like you explain, major outlets like Forbes are employing the services of a robot to write stories that humans are reading and are none the wiser. And Hammond was quoted in a New York Times article last year where he predicted a software program would win a Pulitzer in the next five years.
     
    Now, that’s scary.

    • ginidietrich says:

       @bradmarley That IS scary. Really, really scary. I know that’s the way things are going…we just have to be prepared to reinvent ourselves so we’re never out of jobs.

  9. joeldon says:

    All the more reason for journalism students to minor in journalism and major in computer science.  Based on the changes and updates at Facebook, Klout, et al, whoever writes the algorithm controls the outcomes.  There will be liberal editorial algorithms, conservative editorial algorithms and algorithms that (still) won’t care about your news release.

    • ginidietrich says:

       @joeldon I just read a story that said the developers and engineers in Silicon Valley are the new entrepreneurs. Even though they aren’t running businesses, the money is going behind those who have the passion and talent to create new things on the web.

  10. charityestrella says:

    As hard as it is to stomach, I think in a not too distant future this will be the norm, although as technology advances there will be ways to humanize the content. The more information you can feed a computer about who someone (in this case, a writer) is, the more an algorithm can predict what their subjective opinions and feelings would be about any given topic, even down to what memories it might invoke. Difficult to wrap your head around to be sure, but this is exactly the direction technology is heading, and with exponential advances, this will happen far sooner than most of us think possible. 

    • ginidietrich says:

       @charityestrella I think you’re right…it’s definitely the way things are going. I mean, look at how quickly hard cover books are leaving the industry. It won’t be long before nothing is actually printed. Technology changes so quickly this can’t be a surprise. But it still pains me.

  11. Ali Mac says:

    What the WHAT?! Well, I guess we should have seen this coming, and that it’s pretty much a given that people steal content. But who wants to read ‘robotic’ content? I like for the material I digest to pack some personality, but that’s just me 🙂

    • ginidietrich says:

       @Ali Mac I do too, but I do think technology advances will create the personality the stories are now missing. It makes me sad.

      • Ali Mac says:

         @ginidietrich It definitely is sad, and scary. My husband and I were just talking the other night, there was an article we read about cars that drive themselves, and robots having the ability to “think.” Sounds like terminator-type stuff but in reality we’re not that far away from it (and clearly it’s happening already,) and it especially hits home that it can threaten writers. That must have been hard for you to hold back and keep going with your speech…
         

  12. WebsterJ says:

    Computers will be able to do this someday, but writing a compelling story from scratch is a highly complex task, even for a computer.  It requires a in-depth understanding of human emotion and context.  You’re getting into real singularity stuff here. This is a long way off.Long before algorithms replace journalists, algorithms will perfect connecting people to products without needing active human participation.  Since the goal of marketing is to facilitate exchange, passive data and advanced algorithms will make marketing useless. 

    • ginidietrich says:

       @WebsterJ The interesting thing is the Wired article said it’ll be 15 years before 90% of the content is written by computers. Fifteen years is a long way off, but I’ll still be in the middle of my career then and it scares me to think what I do every day (and love most about my job) could be replaced by a computer.

      • WebsterJ says:

         @ginidietrich  “a long way off” probably wasn’ t the best choice of words. My point is more that relative to most careers, writing a story is more complex. If writers do end up being replaced by algorithms, they should be some of the last ones standing. Think of all the careers that follow a much simpler ‘if -> then’ pattern.

      • FrankDickinson says:

         @ginidietrich Scary for sure my friend. 

  13. higginbomb says:

    Anecdote – I had an internship not wholly unlike the way this could work: I was a “polisher” for an English-language news website in China (China.org.cn). Reporters for this news organization wrote stories in Chinese, then a group of Chinese English-speakers translated them into English, then my colleagues and I (american college students) would perfect the English and – at least in my case – add a little personality to the stories. 
     
    Robots can’t write with personality (yet), but neither can people with limited language skills. All it takes is one semi-qualified and witty kid who’s willing to work for peanuts (like I was) to close the loop. 
     
    Now, it’s important to point out that it’s the founder of the company who says that 90 percent of news stories will be written by algorithm in 15 years. I think there will always be some need for people in the content-creation industry. China.org was able to put together some pretty heavily pro-China prose, but it took a couple of yahoos from the University of North Carolina to find out where to get a decent burger in China (http://www.china.org.cn/learning_english/2009-09/02/content_18447525.htm). Let’s see a computer do that…

    • ginidietrich says:

       @higginbomb This is a really interesting way of looking at this situation. And, taking this example, could the same be said for a novel or a business book?

  14. Lisa Gerber says:

    Oy. That whole automation phase is usually taken one step too far, like in this case. Although, I can see it’s usefulness in something like Little League scores; I don’t ever think it will replace thought provoking, well-written (actually BEAUTIFULLY written) content. 
    …Right? 

  15. I don’t think machines are going to replace human beings because this causes a crash at a certain point. Look at that outsorcing trend, it worked for a while and now everyone is whining because the economy is dead. Well, it’s just a consequence. You know, 99 percent of times these kind of innovations are not made to make people life easier but to have business owners richer, possibly faster. The result in the long term is that if you have a factory run just by robots you’ll have no one buying your stuff because there are no more salaries around. And hungry people will crash into your beloved robotic factory and steal everything to survive.
     
    Ok, maybe I went again a bit out of topic but machines cannot substitute human beings every time and probably they’ll write crappily. If not I’ll buy one. If it’s cheap. 😀 😀 😀

    • ginidietrich says:

       @Andrea T. H. W. Or…is it like the automotive industry, for example. Many people had to reinvent themselves when their jobs on the manufacturing floors were replaced by robots.

      •  @ginidietrich Right, and then car factories owners whined about closing their plants or survived just thanks to public money. If you look at it the whole Chrysler-Fiat thing is crazy. Well maybe not given that Fiat has been taking public money for at least forty years.
         
        No salaries=no business. 🙂

  16. TheJackB says:

    I’d like to talk to the business leader who thinks it is ok to steal content. Or better yet let me steal from his pocket and see if the shoe fits him as well as he thinks it fits others.
     
    No algorithm is going to be able to replace us. The nuances and subtle touches that go into story telling aren’t something that you can teach.

  17. TheJackB says:

    Oops, comment got cut off. You can’t teach machines how to understand those nuances and little turns of phrase.

  18. hackmanj says:

    This is more than a little disconcerting. On one hand I love technology, on another I start imagining a real life Matrix… That said even if only 10% of the news will be created by human beings I suspect there will be a lot more news and plenty of room for people who love to write, edit, curate (can you say tame the fire hose?) and design cool stuff (like news generating programs).

  19. WebsterJ says:

    I’m waiting for the Onion to opt for algorithms over journalists. That’s when I’ll be impressed. 

  20. WebsterJ says:

    This is how the computers take over!!  Algorithms learn to write humor at scale. Humanity giggles itself to death. 

  21. WebsterJ says:

    This is how the computers take over!!  Algorithms learn to write humor at scale. The humans race giggles itself to death. 

  22. jasonhahn says:

    That 90 percent prediction seems a bit bold, though I don’t doubt that some forms of stories (sports game recaps, earnings reports) are in legitimate danger of “extinction.” I can’t see how investigative journalism, parody news (i.e., the Onion, as referenced by @WebsterJ) and other forms of more case-by-case writing, can be replaced at this point.
     
    This is just another challenge for writers/reporters to step up their game and find ways to set their writing apart. It’s also a call for them to do what they can to ask their publications to give them more freedom when it comes to more rote forms of reporting, so they have more room to carve out their own voice and be unique.

  23. Jonathan Eyler Werve says:

    Yeah, the journalism community shares your ambivalence about this “innovation”. We discussed it here:  http://chicagostories.org/news/

  24. Wittlake says:

     @ginidietrich I look forward to joining you in the 10% club.
     
    Here is my crazy question (because I always like to flip statistics on their heads): will this be 90% because people will be writing that much less content? Or is that a 9x increase in content, rewritten and repurposed by machines? 
     
    Remember the old game of telephone? I wonder what happens when a machines creates content that is then spun by a machine that is then spun by a machine that is then…
     
    Will a cycle of machine content built on machine content end up creating and perpetuating misinformation?
     
    So, here’s to the 10%!!

    • ginidietrich says:

       @Wittlake I read it as meaning 90% of the content written now will be replaced by computers. But you ask good questions…and I like your attitude about being in the 10%!

  25. ifdyperez says:

    NOT gonna happen. No way. Writing will always be our art, just as painting, sculpting, dance, and singing. Humans make it what it is. We define the trends, create the best practices, and perfect it. This is a copout, a new way to spam, and users will see through it, get tired of it, and move away.

    • ginidietrich says:

       @ifdyperez I don’t know…I think there is a way to have technology replace humans. They’ve even gone so far as to say a computer will win a Pulitzer Prize in the next five years. Not to say I want it to happen…I can just see that it might.

      • ifdyperez says:

         @ginidietrich Really?! I mean, I know technology can do some things better and faster than we can. But no matter what, they can’t feel emotion. Maybe they can be programmed to express it, but it’s not genuine emotion they generate because they don’t have life! There’s no room for emotion in algorithms. That’s only something we can do. So if a computer wins a Pulitzer Prize in the next few years, then I think the Pulitzer committee’s just trying to pull a stunt. You know me and my passion for writing… I ain’t letting a robot take that away from me, lol!

  26. It’s quite ppssible computers can do anything we tell it to, but it’s not going to do it better than we tell it to do it. If that make sense. And if you ask this language lover, we don’t know enough about the art of language to make a computer that knows it even better. Computer chess masters are regularly beaten by us, because of the simple fact that they have to follow the rules we give them. We don’t.

    • ginidietrich says:

       @ShakirahDawud I’ve just been thinking about this a little differently. I picked up Fifty Shades of Grey to see what the big deal is all about. I’m reading this thing thinking, “Really? This is such bad writing.” It reminds me of my freshmen year in high school when I wrote my first fiction. But it’s wildly popular…and I can see computers writing it.

  27. Raingal7 says:

    This is in no way surprising.  However, soon legislation will require disclosure of the use of computer generated content, in much the same way that grocery stores disclosure “farm-raised” from “wild caught” seafood.  
     
    What would suck, however, is the idea that big media would somehow campaign that computer generated content is somehow more accurate (say, from a fact-checking perspective) and consequently, less savvy members of the public (perhaps even a majority) would somehow agree, resulting in a mindset that questions the accuracy of anything not computer-generated.  Come to think of it, it’s quite freaky how feasible this could be.  Scary.

    • ginidietrich says:

       @Raingal7 I had a call with Narrative Science today so I came back to this blog post t re-read the comments and found I hadn’t responded to you! I’m so sorry.
       
      After talking to these guys, I think this is going to happen. And now I’m OK with it. I’m going to explain more in another blog post, but this is very, very interesting.

      • Raingal7 says:

         @ginidietrich Thank you for replying at all! When you say, “I think this is going to happen”, I sincerely hope you mean the first part and not the second!!

        • ginidietrich says:

           @Raingal7 I actually meant the second part. But I think it’s OK…at least when it’s done by companies that are doing it for the right reasons. I just took three pages of notes and need to combine them into a thoughtful blog post, but even if it gets to the point that people don’t trust stories unless a computer has analyzed the data (not written the color or tone), it’ll be good.

        • Raingal7 says:

           @ginidietrich OK, now I am definitely intrigued–looking forward to it!

  28. AustinRivas says:

    This all depends on how you define better.
     
    If by better you mean keyword and SEO optimized for higher ranking in search results, then unfortunately the answer is that computer is far more effective at generating a news article than a human.
     
    Fortunately for us humans in the marketing industry there is a small revolution happening, perhaps you have heard of “social media” 😛 Social Media brings the human factor back into this, a human is far more likely to generate in innovative idea, controversial story, or hilarious anecdote than any machine in existence.
     
    I used to design artificial intelligences used in data mining, and I can tell you that if you are a talented writer who is active on social media *cough* @ginidietrich  *cough* then you have absolutely nothing to worry about.
     
    This article proves my point 😉

  29. rdopping says:

    one word……..youbetchyerbottomdollarthatsthewayitsgonnabe……now, can a computer write that? No, ’cause it’s BS sauce. Hey, think about it. The algorithms that write that schlock won’t use “real” words like shiznit and bouyah and will, in effect read canned. Who wants to read that shite? Well, the other automated news wires, that”s who, and the people whose brains are pooling on the floor beside them.
     
    Never mind 10% it’s more like 1% and we know how THAT goes.
     
    Logans Run here we come. Ludacris (damn, I can’t even spell that word right anymore).

  30. DannyBrown says:

    Here’s the thing. The majority of journalists, writers, bloggers, etc, never get read. NEVER. Or, at the very least, have one or two people occasionally dropping in to see what’s been said.
     
    If that means automation can replace that overhead – especially on a local newspaper that’s suffering with budgets – then so be it.
     
    Harsh, maybe, but realistic.

    • ClayMorgan says:

       @DannyBrown Hey Danny, I agree with 99 percent of what you say, but I’m not sure “The majority of journalists, writers, bloggers, etc, never get read.” applies to a local newspaper. It may be a bit sweeping.
       
      Maybe the majority of writers don’t get read, but I do believe that journalists working at actual publications do have a readership.

  31. bhas says:

    And they also said cold fusion can solve the energy crisis, and Soylent Green was not people.
     
    I am not denying that a sophisticated algorithm can report Little League games, write stories about stock movements or even pen a novel stuffed full of cliches.
     
    But how will algorithms review a movie or a book? How will they come up with an article about business lessons from the conquests of Genghis Khan? How will they come up lines like “I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries”?
     
    I am not holding my breath. Until the white coats are able to replicate the human brain in all it’s confusing magnificence, that’s not gonna happen.
     
    As a creative I would rather look out in medical journals rather than in technology magazines for any signs of robots eating our lunch.

  32. bhas says:

    And they also said cold fusion can solve the energy crisis, and Soylent Green was not people.
     
    I am not denying that a sophisticated algorithm can report Little League games, write stories about stock movements or even pen a novel stuffed full of cliches.
     
    But how will algorithms review a movie or a book? How will they come up with an article about business lessons from the conquests of Genghis Khan? How will they come up lines like “I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries”?
     
    I am not holding my breath. Until the white coats are able to replicate the human brain in all its confusing magnificence, that’s not gonna happen.
     
    As a creative I would rather look out in medical journals rather than in technology magazines for any signs of robots eating our lunch.

  33. […] Human Writers? (Part Two) Gini Dietrich | Email | 2 Comments A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about Narrative Science and the idea around algorithms replacing humans for news […]

  34. […] few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about Narrative Science and the idea around algorithms replacing humans for news […]

  35. […] She also says that, in the future, the content we now get through blogs will be written by algorithms. […]

  36. […] coming from a robot writing articles for a news […]

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