The Real Difference Between Robots and Human Journalists Isn’t Writing Ability

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July 14 2014 5:11 PM

The Prose of the Machines

“Robots” are surprisingly good at writing news stories, but humans still have one big edge.

RoboJournalism.
"Robot" journalists can’t compete with humans at the things humans do best.

Courtesy of Shutterstock

Here are the first two paragraphs of a pair of business stories. One was written by a human, one by a computer. See if you can tell which is which.

Story No. 1:

BURBANK, Calif. (AP) — The Walt Disney Co. (DIS) reported a 33 percent increase in its fiscal first-quarter net income, beating analysts’ estimates.
Disney, which is based in Burbank, California, earned $1.84 billion in the quarter, up from $1.38 billion in the same period a year ago. Per-share earnings climbed to $1.03 from 77 cents.
The average estimate of analysts surveyed by Zacks was 92 cents per share.
Revenue rose 9 percent to $12.31 billion from $11.34 billion. Analysts expected $11.8 billion.
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Story No. 2:

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Disney on Tuesday posted second-quarter earnings that beat Wall Street forecasts, helped by the home video sales of blockbuster movies “Frozen” and “Thor: The Dark World.”
Both films showed the power of buying multibillion-dollar content brands. “Thor” comes from Disney’s $4 billion purchase of Marvel Entertainment in 2009. “Frozen” was a direct result of adding creative talent from Pixar after Disney bought it for $7.4 billion in 2006.

The difference is fairly obvious, right? The second report was written by AP business reporter Ryan Nakashima. The first was composed by a bot. The human-written earnings story feels more natural, and it weaves the “why” into the lede, whereas the bot’s report is limited to the “who,” “what,” “where,” and “when.”

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Nevertheless, one of the world’s largest news organizations is letting the bots take over the task, at least for certain types of articles. The Associated Press announced last month that “the majority of U.S. corporate earnings stories for our business news report will eventually be produced using automation technology.” In the coming weeks, its first machine-written articles—written with software supplied by the Durham, North Carolina­–based startup Automated Insights and corporate earnings data from Zacks Investment Research—will go live on the AP’s global news wires.

Automated Insights’ software platform, called Wordsmith, is already being used by Edmunds to generate car descriptions and by Yahoo to write personalized Fantasy Football recaps for millions of users. Forbes is publishing earnings previews using software from a rival startup, Chicago-based Narrative Science.

The rise of automated journalism has been greeted by some reporters with fear and disgust. They fret that “robots” will take their jobs or depress their salaries. Others, noting the dry and, well, robotic quality of the bots’ reports, dismiss automated news as a misguided fad.

They’re both wrong. In journalism, as in most other fields, “robots”—better described as software programs, really—can’t compete with humans at the things humans do best. But they’re far faster and more efficient at certain basic tasks. In time, they might also generate certain sorts of insights that even Pulitzer Prize–winning humans would overlook. Yet, for reasons I’ll explain, they’ll also continue to overlook points that even a rookie reporter would find obvious.

First let’s look at what humans do well. We’re good at telling stories. We’re good at picking out interesting anecdotes and drawing analogies and connections. We’re good at framing information: We can squint at the amorphous cloud of information that surrounds a news event and discern a familiar form. And we have an intuitive sense of what our fellow humans will find relevant and interesting. None of these qualities come naturally to machines.

In theory, well-designed software programs could acquire such soft skills with enough data, development, training, and processing power. But teaching machines to think like humans is one of technology’s most daunting tasks, and—Eugene Goostman’s passable 13-year-old-boy impression notwithstanding—we’re nowhere close to achieving it. If we ever do, the impacts on the journalism job market will hardly be humanity’s greatest concern.

And again: Humans are already better at thinking like a human than computers will ever be.

Computers, obviously, are far better at computing—that is, at quickly scanning, crunching, and identifying patterns in large sets of data. They’re also reliable. They won’t be in the bathroom, out to lunch, or asleep at home when big news breaks.

And they’re fast. Given the proper algorithms, they can turn inputs (like a 40-page spreadsheet) into outputs (like a 150-word news brief) faster than a human reporter can say to her editor, “Oh, hey, maybe I should write something on this.” One more thing: Once you’ve built the software, the marginal cost of producing each story approaches zero. That’s how Automated Insights churned out 300 million reports last year for its various clients—a rate of 9.5 reports every second. This year it’s aiming to more than triple that output.

All of which gives software a great advantage over people when it comes to things like quickly summarizing key data in an earnings report. It also makes it an ideal tool for writing stories that humans otherwise wouldn’t get to, like recaps of Little League ballgames or the aforementioned fantasy-league draft reports.

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