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This article was published on September 3, 2016

The pen is not mightier than the robot

The pen is not mightier than the robot
William Watterson
Story by

William Watterson

Billy lives in Providence Rhode Island where by day he runs Beat the Streets Providence - a 501c3 starting scholastic wrestling teams in ord Billy lives in Providence Rhode Island where by day he runs Beat the Streets Providence - a 501c3 starting scholastic wrestling teams in order to inspire at-risk youth - and by night he is a freelance journalist and fiction writer. In his free time Billy enjoys playing the ukulele badly, fishing, backpacking, climbing, surfing (again badly), and pretending he is alternatively Indiana Jones and/or a Jedi.

I have always assumed – which of course makes me an ass – that my chosen career path as a writer was safe from our robot overlords.

I also didn’t think that the robot overlords would want my job anyways – which of course makes me a double ass –given that most journalists these days are jobless bloggers living on hustle, who like myself have three to four other jobs to make ends meet, in my case: Two tech jobs, director of a non-profit, wrestling coach, and increasingly hopeful that people will start paying me to stop singing karaoke so badly.

Yet it turns out that I was wrong. Our robot overlords must be much less benign and significantly more evil than I had believed, because they will, are, and already have been stealing my job.

The journalism industry has been shrinking dramatically at a record pace. Even the one area of journalism which had been growing, digital media, now seems poised to shrink this year.

I’ve been hearing this first part for years and heard this last tidbit on NPR’s On Point Radio as recently as last week. The words “shrink dramatically” are to say the least “wet my pants” terrifying.  Yet little did I know how much more terrifying they would become later that day when I picked up what I thought would be light reading and happened upon a modern technocratic journalistic horror story called “The Rise of the Robots” by Martin Ford.

The opening paragraph of Chapter 5 of “The Rise of the Robots” titled: “White Collar Jobs at Risk,” describes a baseball game:

On October 11, 2009, the Los Angeles Angels prevailed over the Boston Red Sox and earned the right to face the New York Yankees for the League Championship and entry into the World Series. It was an especially emotional win for the Angels because just six months earlier one of their best players, pitcher Nick Adenhart, had been killed by a drunk driver in an automobile accident.

The second paragraph depicts a journalist’s coverage of that baseball game:

Things looked bleak for the Angels when they trailed by two runs in the 9th inning, but Los Angeles recovered thanks to a key single from Vladamir Guerrero to pull out a 7-6 victory at Fenway Park on Sunday. Guerrero drove in two Angels runners.

He went two for four at the plate. When it comes down to honoring Nick Adenhart, yes, it was probably the biggest hit of my career,” said Guerrero, “because I am dedicating that to a former teammate. A guy that passed away.”  Guerrero has been good at the plate all season. Especially in day games. During day games Guerrero has a 794 APS. He has hit five homeruns and driven home 13 runners in 26 games.

This paragraph had me feeling pretty good – I’m a great writer, I’m the next Mark Twain compared to this hack – and then Jeff gave the big reveal and deflated my ego like a balloon.

A robot – or more accurately, an algorithm – had written this article and, while it wasn’t winning any Pulitzers, it also hadn’t done a half-bad job of it. The article was readable, grammatically correct, and the sentences flowed together into a recognizable article structure — lead, nutgraph, quote, informative conclusion – and it was extremely accurate.

This is the promise of automated journalism – while maybe not as eloquent as us wordy meatbags, it is accurate, ethical, and free to a fault at a time when the demand for news is high, but the willingness to pay for it is at an all time low.

The article was written by software called Stats Monkey created by students and researchers at Northwestern’s Intelligent Information Research Center. The software was designed to automate sports reporting by incorporating facts, but also the same essential components of story and structure that a sports reporter would use. Yet, sadly for me, Stats Monkey was only the beginning.

In 2010 Narrative Science Incorporated was founded with venture capital to commercialize the Stats Monkey technology. This new company hired a team of top computer scientists and engineers and built a far more powerful artificial intelligence engine that they dubbed Quill – aka Skynet, aka your new robot overlord.

Today, Narrative Science’s technology is used by top media outlets including Forbes, to produce automated articles covering everything from sports, to business, to politics. The algorithm generates a new story every 30 seconds. I on the other hand generate a new story at best every 30 minutes. These stories are published all over the internet on widely known websites, many which do no acknowledge that they use Narrative’s software rather than flesh and blood reporters.

Christian Hammond, Narrative Science’s co-founder believes that in 15 years over 90 percent of articles will all be written algorithmically.

As far as I can tell, this means that the robots have won, and I am screwed.

However, I am not the only one who is screwed. You are also screwed, you other college educated entry-level skilled workers, because the robot overlords are coming for you too.

There’s a reason chapter 5 of “The Rise of the Robots” is titled “White Collar Jobs at Risk” rather than “Journalism Jobs at Risk” and that is because the same algorithms that can enable Narrative Science and other similar companies to mimic the analytical and reporting skills of a journalist can enable them to mimic the skills of other similar analytical jobs.

Narrative Science, for example, is targeting analyst positions in the financial sector, insurance sector, government sector, and e-commerce sector.

So I’ll say it again: We’re all screwed. We either need to start uniting behind the Governator or setting up a Universal Base Income before Quill/Skynet is harvesting us for our batteries.

In fact, the only real question you should probably be asking yourselves is did Billy Watterson the aspiring journalist write this article or did Billy Watterson the aspiring Cylon overlord write this article?

You be the judge.

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