First, the phrase of the day: “automated narrative generation.”
Unlike any other technical mumbo-jumbo (a mouse is not really a mouse!) this one means what it the words mean--automated narrative generation. You get machines to automatically generate narratives. Way better narratives than the randomness of putting a thousand monkeys in front of typewriters and ending up with a Shakespearean work.
Companies in this business aim to relieve humans from the burden of the writing process by using algorithms and natural language generators to create written content. Feed their platforms some data — financial earnings statistics, let’s say — and poof! In seconds, out comes a narrative that tells whatever story needs to be told.
These robo-writers don’t just regurgitate data, either; they create human-sounding stories in whatever voice — from staid to sassy — befits the intended audience. Or different audiences. They’re that smart. And when you read the output, you’d never guess the writer doesn’t have a heartbeat.
Not really news to readers of this blog, whom I have assaulted with cries of "AI is coming, AI is coming!"
But, despite my cries, the Cassandra Curse effect means that nobody listens to my warnings. Heck, it is one awful "I don't get no respect" life! ;)
Consider the following examples in the NY Times piece, and guess which one was authored by a human and which one was not:
“Things looked bleak for the Angels when they trailed by two runs in the ninth inning, but Los Angeles recovered thanks to a key single from Vladimir Guerrero to pull out a 7-6 victory over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on Sunday.”
“The University of Michigan baseball team used a four-run fifth inning to salvage the final game in its three-game weekend series with Iowa, winning 7-5 on Saturday afternoon (April 24) at the Wilpon Baseball Complex, home of historic Ray Fisher Stadium.”
If you can’t tell which was written by a human, you’re not alone.
(Nope, I won't give away the answer, yet. Either read this post to the end, or read the entire NY Times article!)
As with every other automation innovation, the rationale is that we humans will be liberated from the chores and can then spend our times on more creative aspects of life:
The mantra around all of this carries the usual liberation theme: Robo-journalism will free humans to do more reporting and less data processing.
Ahem, isn't that the gazillion dollar question: what exactly will be left for us humans to do?
Kristian Hammond, Narrative Science’s co-founder, estimates that 90 percent of news could be algorithmically generated by the mid-2020s, much of it without human intervention. If this projection is anywhere near accurate, we’re on a slippery slope.
More than a slippery slope. Think about how easily narratives can be generated that will be customized for your specific tastes in order to manipulate your thinking. You might think you are reading Sriram's blog but it might appear differently to another person depending on that person's digital footprint in the internet.
Our phones can speak to us (just as a human would). Our home appliances can take commands (just as a human would). Our cars will be able to drive themselves (just as a human would). What does “human” even mean?
You see, that NY Times essay also comes down to the question that I often write about in this blog, talk with students about, and have even noted in more than one op-ed: what does it mean to be human?
My worry is that we are not considering that question enough.
With technology, the next evolutionary step always seems logical. That’s the danger. As it seduces us again and again, we relinquish a little part of ourselves. We rarely step back to reflect on whether, ultimately, we’re giving up more than we’re getting.
Good thing I am on a countdown, and--hopefully--will not get to experience the complete madness!
You read until here, or you scrolled down in a hurry? In any case, the answer is "machine first, human second."
A shocking amount of what we’re reading is created not by humans, but by computer algorithms. Can you tell the difference? Take the quiz.
Cue the theme from the Twilight Zone! ;)