Friday, April 22, 2011

Will Robot Journalists Eventually Replace Human Writers?

Recently, the internet has been abuzz with the tale of a robot journalist which supposedly wrote a better story than a sports reporter at GWU's paper. In a nutshell, a reporter at George Washington University wrote up a baseball game, and didn't mention the opposing pitcher's perfect game until the second to last paragraph. Someone remarked that the article under emphasized the significance of the perfect game because it had probably been written by the computers of Narrative Science. The programmers at Narrative Science spouted a collective, "Oh yeah?" entered the facts of the game into their computer, and the computer spit out a superior article, which highlighted the remarkable feat.

Some have suggested that Narrative Science's sports report marked the genesis of the automation of journalism and the writing profession. To determine whether or not flesh and blood writers are destined to go the way of John Henry's axe, we first have to understand what robots are, and are not.

In 1920, Czech writer Karel ńĆapek penned the term "robot" in his play about a class of artificial people, which had been built to serve humans. Since the play's debut, robots have captured the imagination of millions. Literature, TV, and movies have depicted robots as being happy house servants, military officers, linguistic interpreters, superheroes, and "terminating" soldiers. In fact, through such fiction, the term "robot" has become such a common part of our vocabulary that almost any man, woman, or child can supply at least a partial definition of what a robot is.

I'm not sure if industry was inspired by such stories, or the stories predicted what was to come. In any case, the field of robotics has changed the way we live and work. Most robots are little more than pre-programmed machines, some resembling body parts, which have been built to perform a single specific function. Robot arms weld parts on automobiles along an assembly line. Other robots assemble parts, load and unload trucks, and even vacuum our floors. Remote controlled models are used to explore hazardous environments, detonate or defuse explosives, and perform delicate surgery when the doctor is miles away. Unlike their fictional counterparts though, these are tools without thoughts, feelings, values, or goals of their own.

I know what some of you are thinking right about now. "But, we just saw an intelligent robot win on Jeopardy." No, you didn't, not really. Like its literary counterpart at Narrative Science, Watson is referred to as a robot because it seems to perform a human function. However, when you break down what Watson actually did, you'll find a super fast search engine. Watson's program latched on to key words and phrases within each question, searched its data banks at lightening fast speeds for the most probable response, and sent an electrical impulse to the buzzer faster than Ken Jennings could move his thumb. Watson is unquestionably an impressive data storage and retrieval tool, but it can't combine imagination with its stored set of facts to make a decision beyond its programming. Thus, it can't be considered to be truly intelligent.

Put enough facts into a computer, and the computer can regurgitate those facts in a series of perfectly polished paragraphs. It can even compute the odds of a particular event occurring, and obey its programming by mentioning the most improbable events first.

A computer can definitely relay the facts of a ballgame. It can list scores, RBIs, and errors. Yet, it can't tell you about the tension of the crowd during the eternally long second the umpire took to decide if number 33 was safe or out as he slid into home plate, surrounded by a cloud of dust. Nor, can it describe the scent of hotdogs and beer being gently carried on the cool breeze as the setting sun paints the sky a shade of deep orange just beyond the outfield.

Likewise, a computer can relay a death toll of a battle, tell you who gained or lost ground, and it can probably compute the number of rounds fired. Yet, it can't tell you about the little girl looking, through rubble adorned streets after the battle, for a mother she'll probably never find. It can't convey the wrenching heartbreak of the battle's aftermath.

Just as cooking, good cooking, is more than putting ingredients into a pot and applying heat, good writing is about more than recording a string of raw facts. Both disciplines need to be executed with imagination, passion, and attention to detail in order to be done well. Computers and robots are extraordinary tools, which allow us to perform a variety of tasks. However, they will never possess the zeal, heart, or drive of a writer.

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