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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Top Ten Reasons We Still Need (Human) Writers

Within the last few weeks, a large but relatively obscure media company which shall remain temporarily anonymous has been drawing headlines for laying off an undisclosed number of people.

I was one of them.

We were given no explanation, no warning, no severance. Just a mysterious email from our supervisors dropped into our inboxes over the weekend asking us to call in to discuss "the week ahead." I guess that's the corporate idea of breaking things gently.

Before the ax fell, though, projects were underway to revamp the company's proprietary software and content generation systems. It seems I've been replaced by a machine.

Cybot WIP. Stock illustration by macaruba, 2009


Modern technology, combined with offshoring, has made it possible to generate ever-cheaper forms of content to clutter up the Web. Some of the stories in your own newspaper may not even have been written by a real person. We journalists are now literally competing with computer programs. Or so we're told.

No wonder the job market stinks.

There's still hope for writers, though. Here, in no specific order, are my top 10 reasons why it's impossible to fully replace us for the foreseeable future.

1. Emotion. Although an advanced program may be able to simulate emotion, it doesn't actually possess any depth of feeling. By the way, robots, readers can tell when you're faking it.

2. Creativity. "Fiction," Mark Twain reminds us, "is obliged to stick to possibilities." Your computer could mix a ton of hypothetical situations together in what looks like a creative function, but true creativity comes from considering --and pursuing -- the impossible.

3. Voice. Perhaps a writer's most valuable asset, an author's voice embodies a perspective unique to that individual, forged by culture, circumstances and life experiences.

4. Clarity. We've all seen scads of those junk articles from non-native speakers. The word choices and grammar are so confusing that these pages don't attract readers for long. If people cannot understand what an article is trying to say, they complain. They don't link to it and they certainly don't make an effort to find more stories from that "author."

5. Sensitivity. When it comes to handling race relations, religion, politics or any other emotionally charged subject, the computer loses. Artificial intelligence cannot even begin to replicate the shared understanding of your fellow human beings.

6. Research. Again, creativity and perspective come into play here. Machines can make predictions and draw conclusions from data provided, but they don't know how to pursue new information from offline sources.

7. Fact checks. Could you tweak a program to flag suspect numbers, names and other data for accuracy? Sure, but as the techies say, garbage in, garbage out. Software capabilities will be limited to sifting through information given and comparing it to reference databases you provide. If somebody's name got misspelled by whoever stuck it in that file, too darn bad.

8. Analysis. No matter how many facts you input, the computer cannot generate meaningful, informed  commentary laced with a nuanced historical perspective. Graphs and illustrations, yes, insight, no.

9. Typos and homonyms. Ever missed a semi-colon or gotten words like "form," "from," "eliminate" and "illuminate" garbled in your spell-checker? Imagine that on a global scale.

10. Search engines. Duplicate content, irrelevant and nonsensical content, keyword-stuffed content -- all of these can get your business dinged by the likes of Google. When it comes right down to it, bad writing doesn't pay.



Artificial intelligence is increasing rapidly, though, to the point where some scientists think we'll all just morph into cyborgs someday. Is it only a matter of time before the machines take over once and for all?

Kate


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