Monday, September 3, 2012

Can Computers Replace Writers?

Will computers replace writers?

Nonsense, you say?  Well look a little closer and you will find that writers already are being replaced by computer programs.
Remember the old legend about an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters, given an infinite amount of time, would replicate the complete works of Shakespeare?  Well now those monkeys are automated - and educated.  And they write in millions of "keystrokes" per minute.

Robo-writing industry leader Narrative Science (click here) says that its software "turns facts into stories and insights."

The program does exactly what it touts.  It takes facts and converts them into stories.  It markets itself in three areas: (1) media and publishing, (2) business communications, and (3) data companies.  The computer will take data, such as a box score, stock market report, or financial sheets, and convert them into readable stories.

It isnt' the Pulitzer Prize.  Not Yet.  But it does work for stories on the local high school sports teams or for writing business memos gleaned from sales reports. With the financial pressures on newspapers, one can envision a sports or business departments of a local newspaper -- departments that once employed half a dozen reporters -- being reduced to a single editor who spends most of his time editing computer output.

Narrative Science isn't alone.  Much of the writing and editing of Wikipedia is now done by ClueBot NG.  For a article detailing how ClueBot NG works, check out "An Online Encyclopedia That Writes Itself" in Technology Review (click here), or "Meet the 'Bots' That Edit Wikipedia" on the BBC News Magazine (click here).

Klint Finley has an excellent online article for Tech Crunch titled "Coders Can't Put Writers Out of Work Yet, But We Better Watch Our Back. (click here).  It's goes into detail about sophisticated programs that portend real inroads into writer employment by sophisticated computer programs.   The quality of the work may suffer, but economics may be the overriding factor. 

Can a computer some day write the latest thought-provoking column by NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman or literary fiction such as Water for Elephants or current bestseller Gone Girl?  I don't think so.

But  I could see a computer whipping out (pun intended)  Shades of Blue, Shades of Purple, Shades of Chartreuse, etc.  And I actually expect that within two or three years, we may see formula books being written by computers. 

But while computers may be able to replace the writer in some circumstances, they can NEVER REPLACE WRITING ! ! !

At the recent Midwest Writers Conference, Shamus-award winning author Terence Faherty ( passed on a sage piece of advice.  "Don't be a writer if you can be anything else."  At first this takes you back a step.  Then you realize the truth in it.

Writers write because they have to,  because they live with words inside them that they have to get out.  And no computer program, however sophisticated, will replace that.

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