Thursday, May 13, 2010

Machine generated content Is Here. Big Whoop. Real writers are safe.

A provocative little article appeared in the April 29 issue of Businessweek. The magazine was reporting on Narrative Science, a five-month-old company in Evanston, IL, that specializes in “machine-generated content.” Businessweek challenged readers to decide which of three sentences was written by the Narrative Science computer, and which were written by a human being.

At first glance I couldn’t tell whether I was reading man or machine. The pertinent information and facts appeared in all three versions. Even the verbs were snappy, like the copy a sports writer might produce (sports writers are some of the most brilliant practitioners of the art). Still, I felt confident that -- if I thought about the content of what I was reading -- I could make the right pick. I did.

The giveaway? This machine can write competently, but it can't pull in the little "extras" that characterize what a writer brings to the story. Sports Hal doesn't understand that Iowa "dropped the finale." He has no idea that Ray Fisher Stadium is "historic." In short, Sports Hal can string facts together, but he has no idea how to contribute thoughtful observations or place facts into a larger context (at least not yet). Narrative Science is "just the facts, ma'am."

Don't misunderstand, please. I admire, applaud, and pay due respect to Narrative Science. In fact, this company surely is amazing. But as a writer, I came away from the test relieved and reminded once again what real writers do, namely: think, entertain, clarify, provoke, and link us into something larger.

Alexander A. Pyles, sports writer, points to the perfect example in his reaction to sports-by-computer when he says, “Ever read Hunter S. Thompson’s account of the 1970 Kentucky Derby? It’s widely considered some of the best sports writing in American history and includes nary a mention of the race itself. Think a computer could do something like that?”

Surprisingly, I found precious little on the Internet about Narrative Science. Their website lands on a “contact” page and only a few references to the company show up on Google.

Chris Biondi, manager of newsroom development at GateHouse News Service, uncovered a bit more in his post, most particularly a peek at the “full story, not bylined, but “Powered by Narrative Science.” Biondi concurs with Pyle in saying, “You can read a lot into a story like this and imagine how it may affect our industry. But the answer to Businessweek's compelling headline - "Are Sportswriters Really Necessary?" - is clearly, yes, as are writers who cover crime, health and business.”

-- scrubbed by Marketing Brillo

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