Ernest Hemingway, whose novel, Death in the Afternoon, elevated bullfighting to the epic of modern life and death, personified by the skill and bravery of the matador matching his wits and choreography with the bull’s bloody nobility and inevitable death, famously compared the creative craft of the writer with the Spanish sport by proclaiming, “The bulls are blank paper with no words on them.”
And Elmore Leonard, the late dean of crime fiction once famously said, “If it looks like writing, I re-write it.”
Now both can sit back and relax because an algorithm can now do what the muse could only muster before. Algorithms can now write intelligently about matters of interest and significance.
Consider these two examples of sports writing:
“Things looked bleak for the Angels when they trailed by two runs in the ninth inning, but Los Angeles recovered thanks to a key single from Vladimir Guerrero to pull out a 7-6 victory over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on Sunday.”
“The University of Michigan baseball team used a four-run fifth inning to salvage the final game in its three-game weekend series with Iowa, winning 7-5 on Saturday afternoon (April 24) at the Wilpon Baseball Complex, home of historic Ray Fisher Stadium.”
Which was written by a human and which by a machine?
(Answer at the end).
The Associated Press uses Automated Insights’ Wordsmith platform to create more than 3,000 financial reports per quarter. It published a story on Apple’s latest record-busting earnings within minutes of their release.Forbes uses Narrative Science’s Quill platform for similar efforts and refers to the firm as a partner.
Then we have Quakebot, the algorithm The Los Angeles Times uses to analyze geological data. It was the “author” of the first news report of the 4.7 magnitude earthquake that hit Southern California last year, published on the newspaper’s website just moments after the event. The newspaper also uses algorithms to enhance its homicide reporting.
Automated Insights states that its software created one billion stories last year, many with no human intervention; its home page, as well as Narrative Science’s, displays logos of customers all of us would recognize: Samsung, Comcast, The A.P., Edmunds.com and Yahoo. What are the chances that you haven’t consumed such content without realizing it?
Is this good or bad? Well, like so much of new technology, the answer seems (again), “it depends.”
Great for late-breaking news where the reporter, who knows what he or she wants to say, but is sitting there head-scratching looking for the right words, who might, to get the scoop, push a button with just a few key words and headline, and get the story out, grammatically, efficiently, accurately (one hopes), and most importantly, fast.
Maybe not so good for novel writing, but then again, others may disagree.
The answer to the two paragraphs above? The first was written by an algorithm; the second by a human.
Related: Interactive Quiz: Did a Human or a Computer Write This? A shocking amount of what we’re reading is created not by humans, but by computer algorithms. Can you tell the difference? Take the quiz.