Will Robots Replace Writers?

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A few years ago, researchers at Oxford University analyzed industries to determine which were most susceptible to job loss due to technological innovation.

Several occupations like retail salespersons, accountants, telemarketers, and technical writers are very likely to see job losses due to automation. Other jobs like dentists and athletic trainers, are far less likely to feel the impact.

I was heartened to see that editors have a probability of job loss due to automation of .06 (a “1” in their study represents complete certainty of job loss due to automation). Apparently, editing (or “rewriting” by another name) is one skill that machines will still find difficult to learn.

Since the study came out, a number of major news-gathering organizations have announced forays into automated journalism. The Associated Press recently said that it will begin using an automated writing service to cover more than 10,000 minor league baseball games each year. In 2014, AP started to produce automated earnings reports on companies, and in 2015, it applied the technology to its coverage of NCAA games.

The AP is not alone in its attemps to use artifical intelligence. The Poynter Institute reports that in April, Bloomberg editor in chief John Micklethwait announced the creation of a 10-person team to determine how automation could be used in the newsroom. Several other news organizations, including The New York Times, ProPublica, and the Los Angeles Times have also experimented with automated journalism.

Should we be worried? And what should writers like us do?

Sure, maybe you can program a computer to spit out baseball or football stats, or earnings reports, in a way that makes sense. But can you really teach a piece of inanimate silicon how to tell stories that move people, that make them laugh and cry, that inspire them to become better versions of themselves?

While I can see how machines can be taught to piece together facts in a logical order and write them in grammatical English (or your language of choice), I’m holding out hope that computers won’t be able to tackle — at least for some time — what I believe to be the writer’s most powerful tool of all: The art of telling a good story.

As Joseph Campbell wrote in his classic book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, storytelling is a universal art that is deeply embedded in human civilization, one that has profoundly shaped all cultures throughout the ages. From Homer to Shakespeare to JK Rowling, storytellers have played a central role in how we, as the only self-aware beings on our planet, understand who we are and where we’re headed.

Bring on the robots if that makes our jobs more efficient, but I’m optimistic that machines will need a lot more practice to get good at a skill we humans have been honing for millenia.

Nonetheless, we can’t get complacent. With recent moves by The Associated Press and other major news organizations, it’s clear that the future is much closer than we think. We should expect to see many more experiments with automation and machine learning in the writing and editing professions, experiments that will very likely extend beyond the world of journalism.

It’s not hard to see where this is going: Imagine corporate press releases spun from software, web copy generated algorithmically, and blog posts drafted digitally.

One way to keep the machines at bay, I believe, is to stay a couple steps ahead of them by constantly refining your skills by reading books and taking online courses on the elements of the writing craft, through extensive reading of great writing, and, above all, by writing a lot.

Watch out, writers, the robots are coming to get you too.

What do you think about the recent moves by The Associated Press and other news organizations toward automated journalism? What should writers do about it? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Image: shutterstock.com

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