From our humble beginnings on cave walls over 32,000+ years ago, to the world wide web of today, we have come a long way in our efforts to share the human experience. We are innately compelled to do so. The need to let others know “I was here” is somehow deeply engrained in our collective subconscious. It’s no surprise the ability to publish and distribute the written word has been the at the crux of modern civilization.
If you didn’t already feel like you were living in an Aldous Huxley novel in recent years, you will be happy to know companies like Narrative Science are working hard at removing one of the most fundamental components of content creation: humans. In what started as a research project between journalism and engineering, Narrative Science created artificial intelligence technology that effectively allows stories to be generated – on the fly, without the need for any input from a single human. Great. First brands want to be publishers, now it’s the robots?!
Will there be a day when this new technology replaces the need for a human writer altogether? I would like to think this would never happen, but Google slowly becoming the web itself and Ray Kurzweil joining Google as the New Director Of Engineering, there is a part of me that is starting to think Skynet. One thing is for certain, though: just as it’s been proven with the automation of a number of jobs in other industries (travel agents, meter readers, etc), allowing machines to provide us with our news seems pretty creepy when you really think about it. I’m fanatical about technology and gadgets, but there is definitely a line. But, before I go off on a nonsensical tangent about “The Singularity,” let’s take a look back at the history of publishing.
A Brief History of Publishing
As I mentioned above, humans have been publishing since prehistoric times, drawing on cave walls millenniums before we began tracing history. Scientists estimate that the Chauvet Cave found in France contains ancient drawings that were done around 30,000 B.C. Since that time, publishing innovations came at a slow trickle until the Chinese invented paper, picked up to a small stream until the innovation of the “penny press” in the 1800s, and when social media sites and blogs rose to prominence in the mid 2000s, publishing became like a full-blown Niagara Falls. Here are some of the bright spots from the publishing timeline:
- 4000 B.C. – The first hieroglyphics were used. Egyptians imprinted them on pottery and plaques that would be placed in tombs.
- 196 B.C. – Hieroglyphics, Greek and Egyptian demotic were all carved into the Rosetta Stone, which allows researchers now to use Greek to translate hieroglyphics.
- 105 – Paper was invented by the Chinese.
- 1456 – The first Bible was printed. German inventor Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press, on which the world’s first book, the Bible, was printed.
- 1690 – The first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences, was printed and distributed.
- Early to mid 1900s – Magazines began being published in record numbers. Titles like Rolling Stone, Playboy, The New Yorker, National Geographic and more came out during this time.
- 1975 – Punk, a fanzine created and distributed by Legs McNeil, was one of the first of many self-created and published, DIY magazines.
- 2000s – A string of highly successful social media sites were created, including Myspace, Facebook and Twitter. These sites helped bolster the popularity of blogging, and once-voiceless bloggers began gaining their own popularity.
- 2010 – The iPad was released by Apple.
Back To The Future
All of these innovations have pushed the practice of publishing into the digital world, but now, groups like Narrative Science are trying to push it even further. Narrative Science uses their Quill technology to publish automated stories, the first of which was about a baseball game. Sports reporting, since the writing relies on a heavy amount of data analysis, is one of the places where this technology really proves itself functional and useful. Take this story excerpt from Narrative Science’s website, where a robot analyzed statistics from a basketball game and came up with this:
“Ryan Evans scored 22 points and grabbed six rebounds to lift No. 11 Wisconsin to a 64-40 win over Nebraska on Tuesday at Bob Devaney Sports Center in Lincoln. Evans and Jordan Taylor both had solid performances. … With the win, the Badgers extend their winning streak to six games.”
Remarkably, the writing used the game’s data to create a hard-news story that could easily be confused with that of a human writer. However, it looks like it’s not just a novelty. There are other reporting entities and industries that could use this service, too.
Big Data Meets Artificial Intelligence
Institutional Investor calls it “The answer to Wall Street’s data deluge,” saying “Big Data may have met its match with a new wave of artificial intelligence software aimed at cutting through the clutter.” This is where the new technology is most likely to shine now, where it can provide complex reporting based on numbers. Financial-, investment-, real estate-reporting and any number of other data-driven companies will be able to benefit from this technology.
Another big problem that this service solves is in the media, where certain stories that are monotonous for humans and can be handled easily with the automated technology. A story that will require a good deal of data research from a human can instead be handled by the technology, thus freeing up more time for other, more narrative-driven stories.
There are already companies using this technology, but how popular can it become? Will there be a time when this technology will actually be able to replace narrative stories and longform, magazine-style journalism? Certainly not anytime soon.
A New Era of Journalism
Truth be told, the written word is getting cheaper to produce. After all, paper is an expense that many publishers don’t need to pay, though many are still bleeding their profits with print. Don’t get me wrong, reading a well-written story on magazine paper that stains your fingers with ink is a priceless sensation, but now, with the ease of publishing (it’s just a few clicks away), our daily lives are saturated with words. Consumers no longer have to wait to for their morning paper to get the news. Now, it’s delivered right to their computers, tablets or smartphones screen in real time, and you can get multiple, differing points of view from a variety of voices, all within moments.
With that said, the lowered value of the written word has put a lot of papers out of business and a lot journalists out of work, leaving a heavy load on the ones who are still chasing down stories everyday. This new technology can lighten the load by freeing up more time for journalists to cover more stories and get more creative with them. That’s exactly what the people at Narrative Science hope will happen.
Will the Robots Take Over?
Hell no. If they try, they better come strapped with more than an AI program that spits out articles that’s for damn sure. I’m from Texas and we don’t play, especially with robots. Seriously though, It’s hard to say what role this technology will play in the years to come. A technology that all but removes the tedium from data-based reporting in a variety of industries should be welcome, unless, of course, the current writers in those industries are avid Raymond Kurzweil fans.
Right now, it seems that the only thing the technology is capable of doing well is writing basic stories based on data extensive day. The question remains: how intelligent will this technology become? Some would argue that this is just another sign that “The Singularity” is upon us, but for now, this innovation is much needed across a variety of industries.