Narrative Science and the rise of the robot-writer

Report by Alex Klaushofer.

The prospect of machines taking over the world, either as our servants or our masters, has long fascinated, appearing in sci-fi novels and books for at least half a century. But while intelligent robots capable of household management may yet be some way off, a new breed of automated authors, revolutionising the world of journalism, has already arrived.

Its strongest representative comes in the form of Narrative Science, a Chicago-based company that develops software able to convert large quantities of numerical data into readable prose. The company, whose strapline boasts that it ‘transforms data into stories and insight’, tends to cater for niche markets in finance and sport. It numbers among its thirty clients the business information giant Forbes, for whom it has created a platform able to predict company earnings. Naturally, the customisation of the software requires considerable human input: the staff at Narrative Science input the range of stories and angles along with the preferred house style, but thereafter comes a reliable flow of mass-produced stories tailored to each client’s needs.

As astute commentators have pointed out, the implications of such a development for writers trying to earn a crust by hand and brain are double-edged. The obvious threat to traditional journalists that accompanies the attraction of cheap, plentiful copy for publishers, are cogently expressed by Evgeny Morozov:

‘First of all, it’s much cheaper than paying full-time journalists who tend to get sick and demand respect,’ he writes in Slate. ‘As reported in the New York Times last September, one of Narrative Science’s clients in the construction industry pays less than $10 per 500-word article—and there is no one to fret about the terrible working conditions. And that article takes only a second to compose. Not even Christopher Hitchens could beat that deadline.’

On the other hand, in an article published in the Atlantic earlier this month, Joe Fassler argues that in taking the drudgery out of writing, robot-writers could improve the journalist’s lot, freeing them up to concentrate on more creative, interesting projects. ‘In theory,’ he writes, ‘Narrative Science could change that, working like a team of cheap interns to scour the dross, find the gems, and deliver insight. With bales and bales of mind-numbing government and corporate documents to sort through, Narrative Science could eventually help writers find the needle in the haystack.’

Context, of course, is all: for this to happen, journalists would need to keep their jobs and, it’s important to note, lone freelance operators would not be able to afford the services of the likes of Narrative Science.

But it’s in the less obvious implications of automated authorship that the real threat to the human lies, both commentators suggest. As the trend towards personalisation continues, with information-providers more and more driven to tailor their products to the needs of the individual, the robot-writer will dig ever-deeper into the privacy of the reader, harnessing her tastes for its own, commercially-motivated ends:

‘The real threat comes from our refusal to investigate the social and political consequences of living in a world where reading anonymously becomes a near impossibility,’ writes Morozov. ‘It’s a world that advertisers—along with Google, Facebook, and Amazon—can’t wait to inhabit, but it’s also a world where critical, erudite and unconventional thinking may become harder to nurture and preserve.’

Meanwhile, Fassler, having interviewed the folk at Narrative Science, is a partial convert to automated writing, concludes that fears about the threat to the other end of the creative process – the writer’s – are unfounded:

‘Even our simplest moments are awash in data that machines will never quantify—the way it feels to take a breath, a step, the way the sun cuts through the trees. How, then, could any machine begin to understand the ways we love and hunger and hurt? The net contributions of science and art, history and philosophy, can’t parse the full complexity of a human instant, let alone a life. For as long as this is true, we’ll still have a role in writing.’