All that is necessary for the survival of the fittest

is an interest in life, good, bad or peculiar--Grace Paley

Juliet Waters

Juliet Waters
Montreal, Canada
August 01
Montreal based writer, book critic, single mom. Currently working on a book about a year learning computer programming. Visit me, or


MAY 2, 2012 9:31AM

Bottable Stories

Rate: 6 Flag



Here’s a bone-chilling feature in Wired last week about the increasing number of articles being written by software.  Narrative Science is a company that specializes in turning data into story.  This works particularly well in sports stories, where it will be obvious to anyone who knows a few fundamentals of programming, how easy it is to weave narrative strings into statistical data.

There's no great art to instructing  a computer to spew out the words “flawless game” with a no hitter. And adjectives can be easily associated with the score differentials of an inning, or a game.  Software is becoming sophisticated enough that the voice can be tweaked to suit a narrative angle or arc. You can see how easily this can work in baseball, with comeback innings, and unlikely hits from slumping players.  MLBs moneyball strategy is made for storytelling programs.

But where this trend starts getting a little scary is how quickly the software can be tweaked for financial, political and PR reporting.  The kind of reporting that is meant to be somewhat robotic to begin with. It’s already starting with the blurby bread and butter travel guide and listings journalism. Will we really notice when bots get good enough to ape the automatized hype that hack, hungover travel writers have been writing for ages? It’s not at all inconceivable that within five years more and more basic communications copy will be pre-written, not by interns, or junior reporters, but by bots who will be tweaked by editors.  

The problem is that, as any experienced journalist will tell you, it’s not writing the boring copy that makes you a good journalist; it’s the process of amassing the data.  It’s what you learn during your legwork years that become the earth from which your more mature insights are formed. It would be hard to find a journalist who has never done any hack journalism. But that doesn’t mean that they stayed hacks.

You can’t become a virtuoso guitarist if you spend your early years just playing guitar hero.  And it’s going to be harder to find competent journalists if fewer and fewer of them have ever done those basic data gathering jobs. The bots might get smarter as they do those jobs for us.  But how are we going to get smarter?  It’s the stories that the journalist aren’t allowed to tell during the years that they are being forced, or pretending to be writing robots, that later become the Pulitzer Prize winning articles.

And sure it’s nice that sports magazines can now send bots out to write about women’s softball games that previously went uncovered.  But is this actually going to make women’s softball any more popular, or well financed? 

Writing is more than just concatenating numbers and words strings.  It’s a process through which the best and truest stories are born.  First from the mundane craftwork, and later through the insights born from that work.  It’s a process through which people create human networks.  Of course corporate America would like its PR writers to be bots.  Those bots won’t share what they learned off the record while they were interviewing some V.P for his puff piece.

That’s the kind of stuff that concerns me, more than the employment figures.




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I will definitely be reading that article, Juliet. I guess it was inevitable, but it still surprises me a little bit. It also saddens and troubles me a lot.
It is sobering to think about. But I think it's also good for journalists not to be complacent about what skills are going to needed for future journalism. Data gathering and very basic storytelling is not going to be safe job anymore. So journalists are either going to have to get technoliterate. Or make sure they have something more sophisticated to offer than what a robot will soon be able to provide.
This is making me curious.
I saw you on the active feed.
Juliet Waters.
I drove slowly via Montreal, CA..
CBC radio station `called `'Q' . . .
The CBC mentions these`Robots.
I (still) am not sure what to Think.
I'm (still) old fashion. Flesh. Touch.
I Love Real People who communicate.
I am here briefly. I miss the gossip.
I met a Elderly Woman who sang.

I mean She's wed. She plays guitar.
She'd never desire to be famous.
I enjoyed her jam and local talent.
Thank you. Scary indeed. Mimicking the humanity in humanity. The old joke about putting a hundred m-onkeys in a room with a hundred type writers...and waiting for the random Shakespearean phrase. In a society that is top heavy with those who respond and are easily controlled with abstract terms and empty rhetoric....the possibilities are endless.

Our modern world belittles Humanities and Arts Degrees....with lines like...."Will you have fries with that", but our modern world should wake up to the fact that it is the humanities, our art, our writing that keeps us human and make us rational animals that can discern fact from bullshit.
This reminds me of the early editions of language translation software. You would have it scan text in English and it would produce a translation in Spanish. The results were hilarious! It's crazy to think anyone would do that!
Yeah, translation sites are still pretty awful. I live in Montreal, so I know how bad they are from French to English and vice versa.

But this is different because you don't have the same problem that you have with translation, which is idioms. As long as you're doing stuff in a language you know well, it's not hard to create sentences that present data in a reasonably readable and sophisticated way. So this is really an inevitability. It's just a question for journalists of how they're going to adapt to it.
I worry more about the PR stuff. Most forgotten sports teams would happily write a few paras about their game if it got them space in a newspaper. It's a short jump to having the city councilor's junior staff member write a glowing report of his accomplishments.

While someone can probably get a robot to write (mostly) competent prose, I'm sure it will be boring as hell and no one will want to read it. If there are enough hilarious goofs, maybe people will read it, but not for the news.

As a side point, Russian to English translation is horrendous. Russian tends to use grammatical changes to words to convey meaning that English uses additional words, often prepositions for, as in "I eat soup spoonly" instead of "I eat soup with a spoon." Computers translate each word without adding the ones required to get the right meaning and ends up with stuff like, "I eat soup spoons." And that's on a good day.
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Hmm, this made me think of those novel-writing machines in George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four." Okay, he was a few decades off, but aside from that...
It's hard to believe software could mimic human creativity. The only way it will succeed is where human creativity has been shrouded in systematic, predictable wording and format. Humans are becoming robots following templates to share information. It was only a matter of time.
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