Robocalypse Now

Can writers be replaced by robots?


It is the World Series of something or other, somewhere or other. In the press box, at the grimy sports desk of a certain newspaper, a solitary sports writer is hard at work filing a report. Is it perhaps Damon Runyon with, in the heat of the sporting moment, his professional habiliments of jaunty Homburg and chic wire frame spectacles knocked passionately askew? Or is it possibly Ring Lardner, noble brow furrowed, patrician lip chewed with effort as he searches for words to document the titanic battle raging right under his very eyes?


It is not. It is a robot. And not even a cool robot like MechaGodzilla. It is a computer, running auto-generation software.


This may well sound like some stark Orwellian vision of the future, but it is already an actuality: many of the articles you have read over the last few years will have been written by software. Some of the world’s most respected news institutions – Forbes magazine, the AP and the L.A. Times, for example – have turned to robots to generate data-rich stories such as sports reports, financial stories, weather reports and breaking news.


So, should we old-school mortal writers let our inkhorns run dry and hang up our quills in despair? The knee-jerk response would be ‘no’. Machines cannot replicate human passions, human truths, human humour, we would argue. They cannot play with words, love them, tickle them, jiggle them around until they hit exactly the right nuance, we would continue.


Danger, Will Robinson


It seems, however, that we would be wrong. Narrative Science, one of the big players in auto-generation software, use an algorithm leveraging NLG (natural language generation) to generate a story every 30 seconds. These articles run on the websites of Forbes, as well as other internet media powerhouses. In addition, niche news services hire Narrative Science to write subscriber updates.


And according to Kristian Hammond, Narrative Science’s CTO and co-founder, their algorithm is growing in complexity. He believes that human nuances can be set by software parameters. So, for example, a devastating loss for a sports team can be written in a sympathetic style for the team’s home audience, while financial articles can be as comprehensive and data-orientated as required. To rub salt in the wound, Hammond also believes that a computer will win a Pulitzer Prize within 5 years.


Another heavy hitter, Automated Insights, use their Wordsmith platform to generate millions of articles per week (their public relations manager, James Kotecki, estimates that the system can produce 2,000 articles per second if need be) for partners including the AP, Allstate, Comcast, and Yahoo, whose fantasy football reports are automated. In fact, a study published in the 2014 issue of Journalism Practice seems to prove that not only is Automated Insights’ machine-generated content indistinguishable from that created by journalists, but that it is viewed as more informative and more credible.


No danger, Will Shakespeare


Moving away from robo-journalism (or, as some might dub it, robo-churnalism) into the world of books proves no more comforting. Economist and author Professor Philip Parker does not actually write the majority of his books; he uses complex algorithms that can produce an entire tome in just a few minutes. Using his software, his company, ICON Group International, has written well over a million titles. Professor Parker’s software also writes poetry. In iambic pentameter, the metre of Shakespeare no less:


Can truth be told it’s clear my work’s not Zen?

Levenshtein, your magic will clear the haze

Iambic verse has rules and guides my pen

It seems to me your spelling drives my daze.


In truth, I’d love to build some verse for you

To churn such verse a billion times a day

So type a new concept for me to chew

I keep all waiting long, I hope you stay.


But basic truths are easily clear for all

My sonnets suffer now from you, my foe

Until my program sees ol’ Bill, I stall

You test, you prod, and I do feel your blow.


Okay, the truth is harsh, I horse you not,

I render now the fact, I’m just a bot!


Here, at last, is a palely flickering ray of hope. Whilst none of us can claim to reach the heights of the Immortal Bard, as the machine itself would appear to acknowledge, its efforts cannot replicate the lyrical power and complex wordplay of truly great writing. Yet.

Robocalypse Now
Henry AdamsRobocalypse Now