Can computers write a better story than humans?

There’s a company training computers to write news stories. Can they do a better job than humans? It depends on the story, says this author.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about Narrative Science and the idea that algorithms could replace human writers for news stories.

At the time I based my cynical piece—as is my custom—on the things I’d read in Wired, Crain’s, Slate and The Atlantic.

My biggest issue with the company is the idea that a computer could replace not only part of my livelihood, but my passion. But the really interesting conversation happened in the comments, as is always the case.

Some of the comments included things such as:

  • An algorithm can’t say words such as “shiznit” and “bouyah.”
  • If keywords and SEO are the only things that matter, a computer can do that better than humans.
  • Could computer-based writing become better at facts than humans?
  • We don’t know enough about the art of language to make a computer that knows it better than humans.
  • This is a cop-out, a new way to spam, and users will see through it, get tired of it, and move away.
  • In response to the Narrative Science founder saying computers will write 90 percent of all content in the next 15 years: Will this be 90 percent because people will write that much less content, or because the amount of content will increase nine times, as machines rewrite and repurpose it?
  • You can’t teach the nuances and subtle touches that go into storytelling.

You know what? I agree with all these comments. You can’t teach a computer to do what humans can with language. What’s next? A Pulitzer Prize for the pretty black laptop over in the corner?

I took a phone call from Stuart Frankel, the CEO of Narrative Science. It’s pretty rare anyone gets me on the phone if he’s not on my team, a client, or a prospect we’re likely to close soon. That I spent nearly an hour on the phone with him speaks volumes for what Narrative Science is doing.

He changed my mind. Not entirely—I still don’t think a computer-based story could win a Pulitzer—but I’m thinking about it differently now.

He started by showing me the process Narrative Science uses to create a computer-based story.

What’s interesting about this process is all of these pieces have to be there for the computer to write stories about Little League games, earnings reports, or real estate in smaller markets that don’t typically get attention.

For instance, Forbes writes earnings reports for the Fortune 50 every quarter, but ignores other public companies because it doesn’t have the time, human resources or budget to focus on everyone else.

An algorithm can take the data, facts, stats and angles and create a structure around earnings reports for the other 450 Fortune 500 companies. And it can do it in seconds.

Why not let a computer write something no one was going to write anyway, but that people are interested in? It doesn’t matter if five or 500 people are interested because it takes so little time to produce.

Algorithms write stories humans either don’t want to write or don’t have time to write-and they can do it in four seconds instead of 40 minutes.

It’s inevitable

I consider myself forward-thinking when it comes to technology. I love new advances, tools and changes, especially if they help me become more efficient at my job.

I try to keep an open mind, especially if it’s something that rubs me the wrong way like this has.

Frankel said:

“We think if a story can be generated by data, it will be. We’re not shorting humans. We can generate parts of a story from the data that a computer is better at pulling, and a human can add the color or interviews conducted to broaden the appeal.”

I’ve softened my opinion. There are plenty of parents and grandparents who want a play-by-play of the Little League game that the local paper just can’t write. Now they can have all of the information they need.

This doesn’t affect my livelihood or passion. After all, I’m gunning for a Pulitzer someday, not Little League recaps or Fortune 500 company earnings reports.

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communication firm. She also is the founder of the professional development site for PR and marketing pros, Spin Sucks Pro, blogger at Spin Sucks, and co-author of “Marketing in the Round.” (Image via)

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