Get Ready for Robot-Generated Content

The technology exists to “write” an article without someone actually sitting down to write it.

Not that anyone among us, we legions of struggling writers, really wants something like this (really). As difficult as it can be to find your voice, and to build a platform for your ideas and to create something original, no one wants to let others do the work, right? Where’s the reward in that?

But media companies are different. After all, it’s easier to buy a program than to hire a programmer. And it’s easier to let software create something like content than spend the time and money and effort to work with an actual human being who adds a, well, a human element to the process of writing.

But media companies are after saving money, at the same time as they want to make money by providing or selling something approaching whatever they call content. The venerable magazine Forbes, according to a post on Media Bistro, has become the latest to use software from a company called Narrative Science to offer computer-generated stories (let’s not call whatever this is writing.

The Forbes website has an example of what Narrative Science does, — an earnings report, Now earnings reports are admittedly the kind of story that don’t generate much enthusiasm, but they’re important nevertheless.

When I worked at The Wall Street Journal, reporters generally spent a couple of weeks every year or so on the desk that handled earnings report. This was good training for reporters (real, live reporters) who learned to read between the lines of most earnings reports, which are written to disguise any underperforming operations. It was also a reminder in that you had to learn to translate financial gobbledygook into recognizable English. And, perhaps, offer a perspective. A human one.

The Barnes & Noble earnings report for which Forbes used Narrative Science is inoffensive enough. Barnes & Noble was said, however, to “hope” for something, which is impossible given that B&N is a corporation and not a person, and thus not capable of expressing hope – but that’s the software for you, trying to anthropomorphize a corporation. But the Narrative Science-generated content is also rather flat. As if, ahem, a software program wrote it. Perhaps then only a software program should read it.

One commentator noted that the use of robot-created content can free up reporters to do more interesting work. But that’s a bit naïve. After all, the necessary expense of any news-gathering organization is the human one. And if a media outlet can offer serviceable, if uninspired, article to its readers, then why bother with people? In our age of newsfeeds and aggregation, does it matter if a single voice stands out?

It does. You don’t make a difference by being ordinary.

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One Response to “Get Ready for Robot-Generated Content”

  1. Aldous Irving Jimenez-Echegoye February 20, 2012 at 1:23 pm #

    Robots are for lazy people.  My favorite part of this article is this:  ”
    You don’t make a difference by being ordinary.”

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