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Gini Dietrich

Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story than Humans?

By: Gini Dietrich | May 10, 2012 | 
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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.

93 comments
bhas
bhas

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.

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

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.

rdopping
rdopping

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).

AustinRivas
AustinRivas

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" :P 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 ;)

Raingal7
Raingal7

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.

ShakirahDawud
ShakirahDawud

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.

ifdyperez
ifdyperez

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.

Wittlake
Wittlake

 @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%!!

jhahn
jhahn

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.

hackmanj
hackmanj

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).

TheJackB
TheJackB

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.

Andrea T.H.W.
Andrea T.H.W.

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. :D :D :D

Latest blog post: Positive Thinking in Practice

Lisa Gerber
Lisa Gerber

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? 

higginbomb
higginbomb

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...

ClayMorgan
ClayMorgan

 @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.

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ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @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.

Latest blog post: My Son, the Social Network

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @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.

Raingal7
Raingal7

 @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!!

ifdyperez
ifdyperez

 @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!

Andrea T.H.W.
Andrea T.H.W.

 @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. :)

Latest blog post: Positive Thinking in Practice

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @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.

Latest blog post: My Son, the Social Network

Trackbacks

  1. […] 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 […]

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