Saturday, April 4, 2015

Robots Writing?!

Communication is all about connecting with others. But when you throw artificial intelligence into the mix, things get tricky.

Recently, the Associated Press announced that it will be using software to generate news stories about sporting events they didn't previously cover. They already use this software for reporting on financial happenings like quarterly earnings etc. On one hand, it's truly amazing that human creativity and innovation have lead to the creation of technology like this. After all, getting robots to do our busy work has been a fantasy of human kind for decades (a la Jetsons etc). But on the other hand, the idea of computers writing for us is a little terrifying. At this point, the software (Called Wordsmith by Automated Insights) processes data and writes content that is factual and concrete, not too much commentary. We have so much data being collected and these technologies allow us to process and use it, where humans would not have the time or interest to make that happen. But this makes some people nervous, especially journalists and writers. Can a computer replace me? Could robots start reporting?

In recent commentary the question was posed: What if a computer could process language from all the great books and essentially learn to write, and then create a work of fiction with all the nuances that mark a exemplary piece. Would you like it as much as a work written by a real live human? My gut response was "No! Absolutely not!" I'm ok with computers crunching numbers to make them usable for human consumption. But when it comes to computers writing from the heart, it seems all wrong. I would expect a certain something to be missing without another (human) person's human experience put in print. What is it that makes good writing? It's not syntax and word choice, it's the art and poetry of thoughts and feelings crafted into word.... right? But I suppose that it's possible the reader wouldn't know the difference, if the technology was really that good. Somehow this makes me sad.

This argument seems to have many parallels to the tides in our culture regarding food and nutrition. After World War II, when convenience foods and microwaves became more common in our lives, these short cuts were well accepted on our tables and in our kitchens, even glorified. But now, the pendulum swings, and as people notice the long term affects of a diet consisting of processed foods (heart disease, obesity, diabetes), we turn our attention back to the traditional ways of cooking and eating. Those ways of eating that rely so heavily on technology were missing something after all, or added something in that turned out to be unhealthy for our organic bodies. Now it is much more en vogue to market and consume natural, simple, "slow" foods. We want the human touch and the purity of nature back on our plates.

The software is advancing all the time, becoming more complex and capable. But maybe we will notice something lacking in robot's written work, or something unsavory added in, like the extra sodium in processed foods. Perhaps we will find some malnutrition of the information we consume from computers. So just like in food, I propose moderation as the best policy. I'm ok with computers crunching numbers and turning that into language I can understand, but I'd prefer to keep my literature "organic"... like my strawberries.

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