“All The News That’s Fit To, Er, Write,…?”





So by now you’ve probably heard about how the Associated Press is rolling out a new means of reporting: an automated writing system (http://www.complex.com/tech/2014/06/ap-machines):

The AP has announced that it will soon switch to an automatic version of writing and reporting for its corporate earnings stories. A computer program that will be able to take a company’s numbers and produce a 150-300-word article about it will soon be tasked with penning the quarterly corporate earnings reports. The switch will be made in part because the program is now able to take the “by the numbers” information and produce a readable format suitable for its users.

The article then went on to assure us ‘no employees will face termination’ as a result of bringing about this change. 

Now to be clear, this does not mean robots will be appearing at press conferences to ask questions, take notes and write to us stories about the events they’re covering. Rather, all this involves is the implementation of a / series of computer program(s) reviewing and writing up linguistically basic stories directly based upon mere corporate earnings reports. For the AP, what this means is that now AP can “create more than 10 times the number of earnings reports in comparison to past quarters.” Kind of like feed the computer earning reports, pull out a few adverbs and random additives and viola! A cut and dry (read: boring) news report about corporate earnings. 

But what does all this really mean?

Does this mean Skynet (via “The Terminator” movie fame) is taking over the media? Our news will soon be filtered by way of a series of electronic systems, removing the human element whereby we will only hear and read ‘good news’ as opposed to knowing and seeing how bad things really are? Can we soon expect to see messages scrolling across our television screens of “I’m sorry Dave, but you’ve seen enough porn for tonight?” Can we expect to see robots and machines inhabiting our news broadcasting services (although some may argue that’s already happening now) thus totally removing humans from the media broadcast altogether? (Cue the evil laughter: “MWAHAHAHAHHAAAAA!”).


But is the beginning of a greater trend, reflective of the manner by which we view and interact our world and each other. 

Understand, in many ways this is a rather bold step in a domain traditionally held as sacrosanct, safe from the realm of robots / AI (Artificial Intelligence): writing.

We are (generally) taught writing is thinking: you cannot write without some kind of thought or notion – however minimal it is. Whether one is writing about tag team wrestling or the philosophical nature of quantum mechanics, writing – even a mere grocery list – takes some thought.

Some wags would argue perhaps it’s not so much machines are getting smarter, but rather humans are getting dumber, with robots writing about things that really don’t take a whole lot of thought – but this is not an accurate way of looking at things. Consider: the necessity of corporate earning reports now as compared to what they were some 70 years ago; they didn’t exist anywhere in the form we now consider normal – nay, necessary – in today’s modern world, yet they are another vital thing done as part of our daily, modern lives. Now with this new program it’s one less thing off of our collective plates.

Look around you: what is happening as civilization becomes more and more complex, the details which matter – making sure reports are produced, there’s enough fuel calculated in a jet plane prior to flying or that the triggers on our nuclear bombs are actually locked and secure – all of these and more are getting done automatically because frankly, we got a lot on our plates already. We carry on, safe in our assumptions that all is being handled properly by machines, safe from the dreaded ‘human error’ factor. After all, the last thing we need to hear while eating our peanuts in the tourist class is the co-pilot telling the pilot somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean “I thought you figured out the fuel consumption rate!?”

But could this mean the end of writing as we know it?  Not likely, but it raises an interesting question as it relates to the Turing Test: could we tell if something we’re reading is written by a machine or by a human? In which case, does this recent innovation introduced by the Associated Press presage the end of Expository Writing 101 and the pain of attending 7:30 am college freshman writing class? (By the way, if anyone can test this specific hypotheses, please do so and contact me ASAP to share your results; I do, however, deny any responsibility). And would such a trend possibly suggest that soon associate professors teaching such courses will be replaced by robots as well? (Not likely; even robots would find the work and pay insufferable).

Rest easy, we got awhile to go before a machine written item passes the Turing Test (at least for anything not involving 7:30 am Exposition Writing 101).

Speaking as a professional researcher, however, I do note we are crossing a new threshold with regard to our automated tools: the border between the mundane and the dynamic. Consider: something considered boring and “dry” reading – say, for example, corporate earning reports – are based on dynamic and fluid events, often involving complex factors even diehard experts find baffling with unexpected results.

And this is exactly the border where the Associated Press’s new program is going to cross over. Fortunes are made and lost on such reports so we better hope that those “machines” are up to the task – and more importantly, the humans overseeing such services are making sure the correct and proper (read: accurate) adjectives and adverbs are being applied – otherwise some folk are going to find themselves flying over rough seas with no fuel. 




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