Without Creativity, Even Writers Can Be Replaced

Element 79 Chicago Advertising Dennis RyanA fascinating article in the May 9th issue of Bloomberg Businessweek asks the question: “Are Sportswriters Really Necessary?”  This provocation leads a story about a new type of software that converts sports statistics into actual prose articles.  An outfit called Narrative Science just North of our city in Evanston now sells this program which produces “Machine Generated Content” that requires neither a human writer nor editor.

We’ve seen these kinds of stories before, but then we always watched as the ‘miracle car that parks itself’ does that through an excruciatingly slow series of twenty-point turns.  The reality of these kinds of grand promises is always impractical…or so I thought until I took the quiz below.  Can you tell which of these three sports items was written by a computer?

A.  The University of Michigan baseball team used a four-run fifth inning to salvage the final game in its three-game weekend series with Iowa, winning 7-5 on Saturday afternoon (April 24) at the Wilpon Baseball Complex, home of historic Ray Fisher Stadium.

B.  Michigan held off Iowa for a 7-5 win on Saturday.  The Hawkeyes (16-21) were unable to overcome a four-run sixth inning deficit. The Hawkeyes clawed back in the eighth inning, putting up one run.

C.  The Iowa baseball team dropped the finale of a three-game series, 7-5, to Michigan Saturday afternoon.  Despite the loss, Iowa won the series, having picked up two wins in the twinbill at Ray Fisher Stadium Friday.

The correct answer is ‘B” and don’t lie to yourself and say that was obvious because it’s not.  Since this software converts boxscores into articles in less than three seconds at a cost that’s far more affordable than a human being requiring benefits and vacation time, you can bet you’ll be reading a lot more content like this in the future.  Perhaps you already have; the Big Ten Network and Fox Cable are already clients.

No, Narrative Science software can’t interview Paul Konerko about his early season homerun tear, but it can handle a lot of boilerplate writing functions.  When the objective is as simple as clean, communicative prose, that can be programmed.  Today, it’s converting boxscores, tomorrow it could be writing SEO friendly web content for major corporations.  As Daniel Pink opined in his wonderful book A Whole New Mind, automation will replace everything that can be learned by computers.

Happily, creativity, inspiration and the evergreen delight of surprise can’t.  Those only come through sidestepping expectations and convention, delivering unexpected inspiration.  That’s something we all better really start emphasizing in our writing.  Because that’s all that keeps us from being replaceable.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

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PS:  For anyone who may be concerned, no–I didn’t start reading business publications.  My friend and colleague Toby Smalley passed along the article; he’s the smart one.

The “baseball team” descriptor was used in example A, which was written by a human. I guess it wasn’t so obvious after all.

Bill Rogers says:

Hmm, it was fairly obvious to me. Perhaps I’ve read too many sports pages in my day, but no human sportswriter would’ve used the unnecessary “baseball team” descriptor. Interesting reading nonetheless, though. Thanks for sharing, Dennis.

Leah Barrett says:

The computer clearly beat me. I thought it was A. B sounded the least likely to be the computer to my untrained eye. So are you telling me the hours and hours of ESPN I absorb at home via background noise isn’t doing me any good? Dammit.