Monday, July 14, 2014

If robots write, will we read?

Yes, we will.  In fact, we already do.

We are speeding towards that singular moment when machines will think like humans that we won't be able to spot the difference.  Yes, some ways to go, but don't put your feet up and relax because the bots are coming.  Some are already here.  Especially at the one place with which we are all familiar: Wikipedia!
Bots have long been used to author and edit entries on Wikipedia, and, more recently, an increasingly large amount of the site's new content is written by bots. Their use is regulated by Wikipedia users called the "Bot Approvals Group."
Did you know this already?  I sure did not.  News it is to me!  And a "Bot Approvals Group"--is it run by humans or bots? ;)

That WSJ piece reports that using bots, Sverker Johansson, a 53-year-old Swede, has authorship credit  for "2.7 million articles, or 8.5% of the entire collection" at Wikipedia.  News to you, too, right?
Mr. Johansson says his bot could be an inspiration to future authors who have knowledge outside the typical interests of standard Wikipedia contributors. He says a computer program can't write about everything.
"Wikipedia also needs writers to describe sentiments, literary quality, those kinds of things—my bot won't ever be able to do that," he says.
I suppose it is all a variation of what I routinely tell students, when it comes to their term papers--I am not looking for factoids, but for evidence of thinking through.  

Now, most of the news is facts, right?  So, bots beat journalists?  
The Associated Press announced last month that “the majority of U.S. corporate earnings stories for our business news report will eventually be produced using automation technology.” In the coming weeks, its first machine-written articles—written with software supplied by the Durham, North Carolina­–based startup Automated Insights and corporate earnings data from Zacks Investment Research—will go live on the AP’s global news wires.
So, the next time you read an AP story, you might wonder if Wall-E that wrote that.
Given the proper algorithms, they can turn inputs (like a 40-page spreadsheet) into outputs (like a 150-word news brief) faster than a human reporter can say to her editor, “Oh, hey, maybe I should write something on this.” One more thing: Once you’ve built the software, the marginal cost of producing each story approaches zero. That’s how Automated Insights churned out 300 million reports last year for its various clients—a rate of 9.5 reports every second. This year it’s aiming to more than triple that output.
Holy crap!

We--humans--for now have an edge over these software agents, whether in journalism or at Wikipedia: 
The human-written earnings story feels more natural, and it weaves the “why” into the lede, whereas the bot’s report is limited to the “who,” “what,” “where,” and “when.”
How long can we maintain this advantage?  I am pretty confident that singularity will not be within my lifetime, and certainly not before I become useless in my profession.  I am safe!  As for the youth, maybe I should remind them to get ready to serve our computer overlords--and then I will wonder why enrollment further decreased!

If only such news reports make us reflect more on what it means to be human ... no such luck, when seemingly everybody, from a five-year old to a 75-year old, is keen on chasing the almighty money when not sitting stupefied in front of a digital display of one sort or another!

Most read this past month