HAL 9000 Writes a Book

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Since most readers of this blog are writers, this might just ruin your day.

A company called Narrative Science started as a research project with Northwestern University computer science and journalism students. (The Medill School of Journalism is arguably the best in the country)  It was called StatsMonkey.

StatsMonkey was a computer program that automatically generated a usable text recap of a baseball game pulling data from a simple baseball box-score.  A newspaper story written by a computer actually worked well…really well.

An initial round of funding in 2010 started the ball rolling and today, Narrative Science (www.narrativescience.com) employs top programmers who have built an entirely new artificial intelligence writing platform called Quill.

They have won awards, they have numerous top clients using the service to generate news reports, social-media posts and other various quick generated communication and recently received another $11.5 million in additional investment.

Any news story or piece of communication derived from a table of data or information can be quickly turned into a news story without human involvement.  They even use algorithms for “tone” so the difference between a human writing it and the computer is almost imperceptible.

Sports results, financial data, weather, traffic, etc…anything that is primarily based on organized pieces of information being assembled into a report where speed is of the essence is a candidate for Quill.  Companies from all over are embracing it.

It’s called “robo-writing” and it is all around us and you probably don’t even know it. This is not the “put 50 monkeys in a room of typewriters and give them enough time to write a classic” kind of thing.  Most likely most of the news feeds you receive on your smart phone or social media sites are generated from robo-writers.

Of course, this means that entry-level journalism jobs will be replaced by a machine, or at least altered dramatically. That’s progress for you.

At the very least, this tells us something about our present world and where we are headed in the future. Jobs will be increasingly defined by the level of interface with technology.  And, I am sorry to break it to you, but we won’t go back to the way things used to be.

Is this something to be feared? Absolutely not, unless your job is writing information-based articles quickly for minimum wage.

At a digital conference in 2012, I recall a discussion about whether or not a “robo-writer” could write a novel.  Everyone laughed, except for the software engineers, who rubbed their chins, smiled and stared, thinking there was a new challenge to tackle.

Have mercy…

13 Responses to HAL 9000 Writes a Book

  1. Terri Main October 15, 2013 at 3:25 am #

    Well, back 40 years ago, I did concert publicity. I created a template for my press releases that were basically a fill-in-the -blank approach. Most journalists who have written a certain type of routine story have done the same thing. It’s pretty easy to do. In fact, I show writers how to write a basic press release using a similar template approach.

    So, automating the process would not be that hard for simple stories that have a fixed format anyway.

  2. Thomas Allbaugh October 15, 2013 at 6:10 am #

    Basic expository writing–the five paragraph theme–is usually accomplished by near brain-dead students as well, so I guess we should consider that this is a real break-through for computers to achieve this level. Just about every year, in higher ed circles, we are asked to review a new paper grading software or program. This is the holy grail, of course, removing human bias from grading. And the computer can do anything it is programmed to do, but the best the computer does (most of the time) is grade for sentence level stuff. It loses out on the higher order issues of purpose, audience, and theme every year. But the computer industry will keep trying. And they probably should.

  3. Jeanne Takenaka October 15, 2013 at 6:52 am #

    Dan, being wrapped up in “mommy world,” I don’t get to read a lot about technological advances. The one you shared about today fascinates me. I guess it makes sense that a robo-writer could master the tasks you mentioned, especially in light of what Terri mentioned. I use templates for some aspects of my own writing. Why wouldn’t a programmer be able to create a program a computer can use to spit out things like press releases?

    As for novels, my thought is that humans will always be the better creators. Humans bring personal history, experiences, emotions and ideas to a novel that a computer couldn’t replicate. Of course, I could be wrong on this, but my thought is that the human element that is woven into a book is what makes a story unique and riveting.

    On a side note, don’t laugh at me, but reading about robo-writers made me think that if Superman was a comic written in this day and age, Clark Kent couldn’t be a beat reporter. 🙂

    • Dan Balow October 15, 2013 at 7:16 am #

      Hmmm…Clark Kent would probably be a mild-mannered software engineer or financial analyst.

      The real breakthrough in the robo-writing process was that there are no templates used. The artificial intelligence varied the approach and tone so that it didn’t sound like the report generated before it. One major media service generated 10,000 articles a month with a staff of ten people.

      Speed, volume, accuracy and the high quality of the generated content made this a real “leap over a tall building” from the old days of a merged info template.

  4. Nancy B. Kennedy October 15, 2013 at 6:56 am #

    Well, if journalism positions are still available going forward and they’re unshackled from the tedious chores, maybe entry-level jobs will get more interesting! At my first newspaper job, I was given the daily task of double-checking the lottery numbers — it was the biggest reason people bought the paper and heaven help me if they were misprinted!

  5. marci seither October 15, 2013 at 7:42 am #

    It is still sad to see the entry level jobs replaced. I have a daughter and an almost daughter in law who graduated with journalism degrees…yeah not a kit of jobs to get experience with and move up.
    Thanks for the update..I had no idea about the robo writers as well. I guess the Jetsons wasn.t such a futuristic concept.

  6. KT Sweet October 15, 2013 at 10:05 am #

    Ah, progress…and the Million Dollar Bionic Man recently revealed, with artificial heart, kidneys, blood, retinas, skin, etc. Does this mean we’ll have robo-people reading robo-writing? As a Christian spec fiction writer, the scenarios are endless. I thank God for His Word. 🙂

  7. Nora Spinaio October 15, 2013 at 11:12 am #

    As far as writing such things as sports and news where there is little left for the imagination anyway, I’m not surprised that computers are doing it.

    But, as Mr. Data found out time and time again. A machine cannot create art, it can only copy it.

    So, I think fiction writers are good for now. Or, are we? (insert evil robotic laugh here).

    God bless you in your efforts for HIM.

  8. Janet Ann Collins October 15, 2013 at 11:21 am #

    Maybe humans will become unnecessary some day. Will that allow the world to go on as usual after the Second Coming? Will there be fallen robots? Hmmmn I wonder what the robo-technology might write about those ideas.

  9. Peter DeHaan October 15, 2013 at 5:38 pm #

    If this takes off and a computer can write a novel, then I want to be the guy who plugs the basic data into the computer to set the whole thing in motion. (I think I could still call myself a writer if I did that — right?)

  10. Terri Main October 15, 2013 at 6:08 pm #

    Well, if you think about it many of our routine writing chores even as fiction writers are done by computer. We don’t use various spellings for effect anymore. The spell checker corrects them for us. Many of us use some sort of editing software as part of our editing process. I’m not talking about depending on it, but using it to catch what it can and then go back and use human eyes to pick up on what the program missed. I’ve used these programs for about 20 years and the modern ones are amazing in how they often even catch issues related to context that the older ones didn’t. It’s no big stretch to see a day when grammar and punctuation checkers reach a level of accuracy similar to that of spell checkers. Neither are ever going to be perfect, but they reduce the amount of time we spend editing.

    I could also see someone writing an alogrithm that could add attributions and vary them based on a linquistic analysis of the dialogue.

    The very fact that we compose on a keyboard instead of with pen and paper means being assisted in some routine aspects of writing and publishing by machines. Yes, it does affect the creativity. Printed books are standardized for instance, in a way no illuminated hand created manuscript was.

    Making changes ‘on-the-fly’ using a word processor changes the writing process. I know as one who wrote her masters thesis on a manual smith corona typewriter. I am willing to do many more drafts today than I was back then. That has affected the composition.

    You can always build an algorithm that can collect data and place it within a linguistic model and call that writing. But who writes the algorithm and who decides what data goes into the story.

    I do think writers are going to increasingly become programmers and media coordinators. Ebooks open up the possibility of mixing text, pictures, video and audio files and interactive elements into a single work. Some of that work will have to be automated. But the automation is simply the container into which you pour the creative product.

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