Making us more human

2011-02-04 00:00

THERE'S been an undercurrent of paradox kicking up dust in my otherwise clinical views on technology. I've tried to suppress it, but it keeps bubbling to the surface. I consider myself not only pro technology, but obsessed with it, and someone who is neither afraid of the future nor the technology that it will bring.

When I first read about Stats Monkey, a software project led by Stuart Frankel, a former DoubleClick executive, and Kris Hammond, a Northwestern University computer science professor, that could automatically create sports stories based solely on raw game data, I had a subdued Salem witch trial reaction to it. Still not having fully come to terms with my reaction, I relished the fact that the algorithm's lifeless, robotic reporting seemed only passable at best.

But shortly thereafter, StatSheet, a start-up from North Carolina in the United States, announced that the content for its sports network was being produced entirely by robot sports reporters. I became restless.

This was followed by Peter Kafka's latest article on narrative science. At this point I finally stopped to do some introspection.

Narrative science goes beyond sports writing and sells technology that "generates news stories, industry reports, headlines and more — at scale and without human authoring or editing". The idea of computer-generated narratives seems to be lucrative, as the company has managed to raise U.S.$6 million in funding recently. The new startup is the aforementioned Stats Monkey project come full circle. Stuart and Frankel are now joined by Larry Birnbaum, also a computer science professor from Northwestern University, and operate from its headquarters in Evanston, Illinois.

Putting down my pitchfork and torch for a moment, I start to consider the positives of this frankly amazing emerging technology. I'm reminded of a South Park episode titled "Goobacks", a satire about illegal immigration where people from a poverty-stricken future travel back in time to find work, affecting the current-day economy.

In the case of narrative science, we as writers from across the spectrum, journalists, bloggers, copy writers, and even technical writers face a future where software algorithms could make us redundant. Is this really our fate? Will the advances in computer- generated narratives really be the death of human-powered journalism?

I think quite the opposite is true.

We live in an age where 95% of news content is produced by traditional media outlets such as radio, television, and print publications. Eighty-six percent of the stories are simply repackaged and disseminated (mostly online), and only four percent of content is estimated to be original. The repackaging of factual events seems like a monumental waste of time. Machines are better equipped for this.

If an earthquake happens in Los Angeles, systems connected to a narrative sciences system could produce an article and immediately distribute it to news agencies worldwide.

Kafka highlights two further scenarios namely, the production of financial reports and real estate writeups where the technology could be useful. He cites Demand Media, an online company that pays freelance journalists low sums of money to create online content based on a combination of measured consumer demand and predicted return on investment (ROI), and Reuters, which reportedly moved some of its financial-reporting resources to India a few years ago to act as a content farm.

Why use people at all? Let machines do the grunt work, and let humans do what they do best, and that is, to be creative.

The technology could set us free.

I foresee a renaissance in creative, original writing. AOL understands that original content will be the saviour of its business. Its acquisition of TechCrunch and Engadget is testament to this.

Google understands the concept too as it has recently tweaked its algorithm to favour sites with original content.

My sentiments are echoed by Amber Case in her TED presentation in which she explores how technology is evolving us, augmenting our abilities and creating a new version of homo sapiens:

"But when you actually visualise it [the Internet]: all the connections that we're doing right now, it doesn't look technological, it actually looks very organic. This is the first time in the entire history of humanity that we've connected in this way, and it's not that machines are taking over, it's that they're helping us to be more human, helping us to connect with each other. The most successful technology gets out of the way, and helps us live our lives, and really, it ends up being more human than technology, because we're co-creating each other all the time."

Technology is not the enemy. It is beautiful. It has an organic quality to it that enables human connection, and augments our abilities. It makes us more human in that it frees us up from human-mechanised repetition that steals time from what we do best: creating things.

As Kafka so eloquently puts it: "The trick for content makers like myself is to find work that only content makers like myself can do, work where human qualities like experience, judgment and creativity get rewarded. And if we can't do that, we ought to be doing something else, anyway."

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