Saturday, May 5, 2012

I, Robot Author

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..."

B.    "Marshall squeaked out an additional run in the top of the fifth. As Langley approached the seventh inning, it looked as if the Saxons had the game well in control, but the Statesman rallied behind six hits to get within 7-6. With the bases loaded and two outs, Templin struck out the last batter (her ninth strikeout of the game) to secure the win for the Saxons..."

One of those two pieces was written by a man named Rich Sanders, for the Vienna Connection. The other was written by a robot.

Admit it. It's tricky picking which is which, isn't it?

This robotic authorial outsourcing is in its nascent stages. For at least the time being, it'll be a long while before any machine can be programmed to write something as sublime as James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, or as steamy as E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey. Not even the world's greatest programmers have come remotely close to figuring out the way to teach a computer to write authentically about how a cool summer breeze feels on sunburned skin on a white sand beach at dusk, or what throbs in a mother's heart when she sets her eyes on her newborn baby's toothless smile, or the chills that quiver down one's spine at the coming robopocalypse.


But in a recent article in Wired magazine, Kristian Hammond, Narrative Science's co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, boldly predicted that over 90% of all news stories will be written by computers in 15 years. He also predicted a computer will win a Pulitzer Prize in five years. Clearly, he's a businessman with an agenda. Just as clearly, he's no fool.

So if computers write the book, edit and format the book, market and distribute the book, and beam the book through wires and wavelengths to other machines to be sold and read, where will that leave us humans? Just as buyers and readers, I guess. That is, until the programmers figure out a way to make robots who'll purchase and read the book.

Can you hear the future of books? It's a robot choir, singing, "May the (electronic) circle be unbroken," in perfect harmony.

The answer is A.

"You gotta be pretty desperate to make it with a robot."
~~Homer Simpson~~


  1. I picked it easily. A sounded mechanical. The time may come, but the time is not yet. ~whew!~

    Marian Allen
    Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

  2. I also picked the correct one - a computer programmer can recognize pattern-driven writing in a heartbeat.

    There's something to homespun grammar, metaphor, description - and things left unsaid - that a computer just can't replicate.

    I don't care how good they make those algorithms. Without the intellectual spark needed for storytelling, I highly doubt any program could tell a worthwhile story. And in the end - you have a story written by a program written by a PROGRAMMER who - if he's as passionate about programming as authors are about writing, is not a storyteller.

    Besides, there's more than enough boring authors already. ;-)

  3. I can't stand sports stories, so I didn't see much difference. To me, sports writing is nothing but a collection of numbers and cliches, which is how the software-generated story sounded. Programs are likewise being used to write market reports, but this is possible because both game and market reports center on data that machines can collect from standardized reports and then "color" with stock phrases.