Technological developments are radically restructuring the way books are produced, marketed, sold, delivered and read. Borders stores are gone, and many analysts say Barnes & Noble's once mighty chain is circling the drain, both undone by online book retailers. Worldwide sales of e-readers like the Kindle and Nook continue to gain momentum with no signs of an imminent slowdown. The percentage of books bought via download to be enjoyed on machines, rather than read on paper pages, increases monthly.
In these turbulent times, you might be thinking the only element of the book industry that's immune to replacement in this incessant technological onslaught is the author.
The trouble with that is, you might be thinking wrong.
I'm not referring to something like the "infinite monkey theorem," which states that given enough time, an immortal monkey typing random keys will almost surely produce Shakespeare's complete works. Mathematically speaking, the chances our immortal monkey can achieve this result in an amount of time even 100,000 orders longer than the age of our universe is a number barely removed from zero. For a taste of an example in this regard, you need only revisit the work conducted in 2003 by a British team at the University of Plymouth. The team installed a computer keyboard in a primate enclosure at the Paignton Zoo in Devon. After an entire month, the enclosure's six crested black macaques managed to write only five pages, which overwhelmingly featured the letter S. The monkey authors apparently took far more delight in beating their keyboard with a rock, when they weren't urinating and defecating on it, than in replicating Hamlet.
Alas, poor Yorick!
No, this latest technological development isn't the computerized equivalent of immortal monkeys infinitely typing. It's not nearly so primitive as that. Instead, it's something happening right now, pioneered by companies headquartered in Illinois (Narrative Science) and North Carolina (Automated Insights). As a matter of fact, it's not unlikely you've already read somewhere a short piece of sports or financial reporting dashed off by computers meticulously programmed to write news stories like people do.
You scoff. I can hear you from here. You're thinking there's no way a computer could write even a simple news story that's virtually indistinguishable from one written by a human. No algorithm's that good, right? Fair enough. Below are two excerpts from recent sports stories. One's written by a person, the other by a machine at Narrative Science. Pick the one written by the machine.
A. "Friona fell 10-8 to Boys Ranch in five innings on Monday at Friona despite racking up seven hits and eight runs. Friona was led by a flawless day at the dish by Hunter Sundre, who went 2-2 against Boys Ranch pitching. Sundre singled in the third inning and tripled in the fourth inning... Friona piled up the steals, swiping eight bags in all..."