Monday, August 27, 2012

I Thought You Were the Roh-butt

(Go to 2:20)

There’s a good chance that if you read a lot of news online, you’ve read something written by a robot.

Well, an algorithm, at least, devoid of camshafts and gears and servos but certainly able to imitate the styles of Ring Lardner, Mike Royko and other distinctive writers, if the folks at Narrative Science and Wired reporter Steven Levy (who swears he’s not a robot) are to be believe.

The Chicago-based company is already using algorithms, coached by “meta-writers” in human form who help them with nuance and slant – at least in the beginning – to write stories on Little League games and some aspects of financial news, where the algorithms can draw on vast databases of statistics and numbers with which to craft play-by-play narratives.

Read more about it in levy’s Wired Gadget Lab post here.

Flesh and blood news reporters have nothing to worry about, per Levy – at least not yet:
[Narrative Science CEO Kristain] Hammond assures me I have nothing to worry about. This robonews tsunami, he insists, will not wash away the remaining human reporters who still collect paychecks. Instead the universe of newswriting will expand dramatically, as computers mine vast troves of data to produce ultracheap, totally readable accounts of events, trends, and developments that no journalist is currently covering.
This service could be a boon to local newsrooms, already stretched thin and unable to cover Little League and other kiddie sports. But if parents keyed in stats from the games via their smartphones and Narrative Science computers were tied into that information and the local newspaper bought the stories, local news could offer on the cheap stories that their readers want.

Such technology could tap into markets not touched by traditional media: Hammond envisions his algorithms giving play-by-play of World of Warcraft sessions, in which “players could get a recap after a big raid that would read as if an embedded journalist had accompanied their guild,” Levy reports. Try getting your local paper to do that on anything more than a one-off feature story basis.

It’s a weird world we’re going to live in.

There’s another side to the coin, of course.

Such technology could be vexing to, for example, college writing instructors (of which I am one) if it fell into nefarious hands. Why pay a flesh-and-blood ghost writer if an algorithm will write your essays for you?

Internet Learnding of the Day: This kind of thing was foretold, rather snarkily, by Roald Dahl, of all writers. Pretty amusing stuff, this.

And a bit scary. Spoilers ahead:

But on the whole, it was a satisfactory beginning. This last year — the first full year of the machine's operation — it was estimated that at least one half of all the novels and stories published in the English language were produced by Adolph Knipe upon the Great Automatic Grammatizator.

Does this surprise you?

I doubt it.

And worse is yet to come. Today, as the secret spreads, many more are hurrying to tie up with Mr. Knipe. And all the time things get worse for those who hesitate to sign their names.

This very moment, as I sit here listening to the crying of my nine starving children in the other room, I can feel my own hand creeping closer and closer to that golden contract that lies over on the other side of the desk.

Give us strength, Oh Lord, to let our children starve.

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