Could a robot write this article?

Humans have feared the rise of machines since the 19th century, when textile workers known as the Luddites smashed the mechanical looms they thought would replace them.

Yes, machines have been replacing human workers for a very long time.

Until recently it was manual laborers who had to worry about losing their jobs at factory or farm due to technological progress: robots can do many things humans can’t, more efficiently – and without complaint.

Now, so-called knowledge workers could be on the chopping block, too – from telemarketers and salespeople to surgeons, and perhaps programmers and security software engineers.

Even reporters, news writers and bloggers like me are facing competition from robots (more precisely, algorithms collectively known as artificial intelligence, or AI).

Last week, the giant Chinese internet and gaming company Tencent published an article on its news portal about the rising price of consumer goods in China – not exactly earth-shattering news, except that the article was written by a robot called Dreamwriter.

Dreamwriter wrote the 1000-word article, using algorithms that search online sources and data, in just 60 seconds. The article quoted economists and highlighted trends in a style indistinguishable from a human financial reporter.

According to the South China Morning Post, Dreamwriter’s article was the first robot-written news article in the Chinese language.

The Morning Post quoted a Chinese journalist who said China’s state-run media doesn’t give reporters much creative license, which makes them easily replaceable by robot writers:

You know, many reporters working for government-run newspapers across the country usually copy and paste the statements and news press. They are not allowed to express doubt or really investigate reports against the authorities. So robot reporters could easily replace a lot of Chinese reporters like this nationwide.

Surely things are different in the West, where journalists are expected to produce original work?

Unfortunately for writers, companies like Narrative Science in the US have been producing robot-written news stories for outlets like Forbes and the Big Ten Network going back a few years now.

Robots are already writing thousands of news articles a year about sports, financial and weather reports.

Last year, the Associated Press began using an automated system called Wordsmith to produce articles about companies’ quarterly earnings, although the Verge reports that no human jobs have been lost.

These are data-driven and recurring events that can be based on templates, which is fairly simple work for a robot.

The algorithms powering robot writers like Dreamwriter, Wordsmith (by Automated Insights) and Narrative Science’s Quill, are getting smarter – machine learning even allows them to identify and highlight dramatic ‘turning points” in sports games or business transactions.

Could robots one day write novels and poetry too?

The Neukom Institute for Computational Science at Dartmouth College, US, is asking AI researchers to find out.

The institute is sponsoring three competitions for its Turing Tests in Creative Arts to see if robots can write “human quality” short stories, sonnets, and dance music DJ sets.

Researchers have been experimenting with robot novels for years – one program called Racter “wrote” a book titled “The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed” back in 1983.

Twitter is home to many types of bots, some of which have been tweeting out bizarre poetry.

As a professional writer, how worried should I be?

Robot writers probably aren’t going to replace me anytime soon, but Narrative Science CTO and co-founder Kristian Hammond predicted back in 2012 that 90% of news stories will be written by robots within 15 years.

I don’t know if a robot could ever write a story like this one, because as a human with hopes and fears, I can write about how it feels to have my job threatened by automation.

It makes me nervous.

Image of human hand touching an android hand courtesy of Shutterstock.com.

Leave a Reply