The computer journalist

Fans of nostalgia are going to enjoy this little nugget. This blog post — at least up until this point — was written by a human.

Indications are it isn’t always going to be that way in the business of news. The Atlantic gives us the inside look today at Narrative Science, a startup company that has developed a computer program to write news stories.

It’s already being used to write earnings report previews for Forbes, it says. And sports stories appear to be the next frontier. Both arenas involve lots of data that doesn’t make sense to people unless there’s a narrative — a story — to go with it. That’s where the software comes in.

As a journalist and fiction writer, it of course struck me to think about the relevance of all of this to what I do. I arrived at the Chicago office prepared to have my own biases confirmed–that the human mind is a sacred mystery, that our relationship to words is unique and profound, that no automaton could ever replicate the writerly experience. But speaking with Hammond, I realized how much of the writing process–what I tend to think of as unpredictable, even baffling–can be quantified and modeled. When I write a short story, I’m doing exactly what the authoring platform does–using a wealth of data (my life experiences) to make inferences about the world, providing those inferences with an angle (or theme), the creating a suitable structure (based on possible outcomes I’ve internalized from reading and observing and taking creative writing classes). It’s possible to give a machine a literary cadence, too: choose strong verbs, specific nouns, stay away from adverbs, and so on. I’m sure some expert grammarian could map out all the many different ways to make a sentence pleasing (certainly, the classical orators did, with their chiasmus and epanalepsis, anaphora and antistrophe).

Hammond tells me it’s theoretically possible for the platform to author short stories, even a statistically “perfect” piece that uses all our critical knowledge about language and literary narrative. Such attempts have been made before–Russian musicians once wrote the “best” and “worst” songs ever, based on survey data. But I suspect that a computer’s understanding of art will never quite match our own, no matter how specific our guidelines become. Malcolm Gladwell writes about this effect in Blink, noting how, for reasons that sometimes confound us, supposedly market-perfect media creations routinely tank.

Besides, the best journalism is always about people in the end–remarkable individuals and their ideas and ideals, our ongoing, ever-changing human experience. In this, Frankel agrees.

“If a story can be written by a machine from data, it’s going to be. It’s really just a matter of time at this point,” he said. “But there are so many stories to be told that are not data-driven. That’s what journalists should focus on, right?”

That’s an interesting question because the hot commodity in journalism in recent years has been data driven content.

It might well be that the computer program could take over for much of political coverage since it’s become little more than poll-driven stories, campaign contribution numbers, and delegate counts.

(h/t: Ken Paulman)