When I first learned about Chicago-based Narrative Science, the smallest, weakest part of my ego caught flame and soon an inferno of doubt engulfed my every thought. The firm’s artificial intelligence algorithms combine “business analytics” and “natural language communication” in a manner that makes raw data easily consumable. Basically, they’ve taught robots to write news stories. And it works.
In many ways, this is old news, though it grows increasingly relevant day by day for those in the news trade – or at least those still in the trade.
As content becomes further commoditized, it stands to reason that its creation would be taken over by technology, assembly-line style, like every other business since the industrial revolution. Instead of Dickensian wastrels working in 19th century factories, however, we’ve got the lovechild of Gutenberg and Babbage, plus a few centuries of machine maturation doing the dirty work. And writing is dirty work, mind you. Beyond the industrial waste both produced and consumed in the form of alcohol distillates, there’s also the low pay, lower self-esteem and the lowest common denominator as a target readership that weighs down one’s lofty prose (though I don’t believe this is the case with you personally, dear reader – you’re as highbrow as a Vulcan with botox).
I had mistakenly thought creatives and knowledge workers were immune to the robot revolution because what we do requires that certain je ne sais quoi we purchased with our student loans. When it comes to data-driven business and sports stories, however, the robots kick ass with their deep data-mining and preprogrammed boilerplate that reads as well as any wire copy. This is probably why Reuters is a client – Reuters, which daily feeds national news sites and papers with hundreds of perfectly inverted pyramids, like a multitude of refugee newsies, paper hats in hand.
The fact that Narrative Science named their technology “Quill” might be stinging to those writers for whom the icons and trappings of the lifestyle are sacrosanct. To me, it’s the kind of branding genius that’s always lured me to the dark side. To wit, I don’t see Quill as a threat to my vocation as much as a tool, neigh, a weapon, to defend myself from the growing hordes after my gig. I shall use technology like that developed by Narrative Science as a way to franchise myself, to multiply my output, to use the robots as my own private clone army. Though I don’t have the same depth of pocket as a national news organization, I do have thousands of published clips that, in aggregate, constitute an editorial profile of my voice, tropes and schemes. I have oodles of digital DNA the company could use to effectively replicate me as an algorithm. With a small investment in an online thesaurus, they might even be able to match my Brobdingnagian vocabulary.
I called Narrative Science to propose my plan – I mean, why wouldn’t they want to help me metastasize my byline into every crack and crevice of written media? – but I couldn’t find my way to humans on their phone system. This got me thinking – do they even employ humans? I could email, but how would I know I wasn’t receiving a robot’s reply? Had I just tripped into some rabbit hole where the machines have already won? Was seeking their services the beginning of my downfall, an invitation to replace me with some code-borne Stepford writer? I suppose we can only ask if, in their words among the nations, the Promethean fire is burning.