Until relatively recently, robots performing human jobs was something only real in science fiction movies. Massive franchises such as Star Trek, Star Wars and children’s cartoons such as The Jetsons captured the public’s attention with intelligent, distinctly human automated characters. At the time, these depictions of robots and artificial intelligence were no more than fantasy elements in an already futuristic, science-fiction dream.
Now though, the advancements in machine learning and artificial intelligence are everywhere, even if we don’t notice or realize. While they are less R2D2 than popular culture would have us believe, voice and facial recognition systems, search engine recommendations and software personal assistants such as Apple’s Siri or Android’s Google Now are just a few of the broad applications of artificial intelligence software in our everyday lives.
For hire: human marketer/journalist/content creator
One job that has long been shielded from automation is that of journalists, content marketers and social media specialists. Until recently, natural language processing, which broadly means the ability for computers to derive meaning from human-created texts, had not evolved to the point where machines could coherently create texts. However, due to major advancements in machine learning, computational linguistics and computer science, machines can now do just that. What does this mean for people in those fields? Well, there’s a good chance that at least some, if not all, of your job may some day be done by a very sophisticated machine whirring away in some remote server room. To that end, there’s really nothing to say that the very article you’re reading right now wasn’t written by a machine (that being said, I’m human, I promise).
This isn’t all speculation and fear-mongering though: the future is already here. In June 2014 the AP began using content produced by Automated Insights’ tool Wordsmith, which is a natural language processor that turns large, complex data sets into short, easily-readable stories. According to a blog post on the AP website in January 2015, the software has allowed the organization to generate “3,000 stories about U.S. corporate earnings each quarter, a tenfold increase over what AP reporters and editors created previously.”
In a similar vein, Narrative Science, whose flagship software product Quill, produces similar data-heavy stories for Forbes. Similar to Wordsmith, Quill is a complex natural language generation platform that got its start turning raw data into sports stories. It has since moved to writing financial stories and generating narrative analytics reports for website owners. Like Wordsmith does for AP, Quill allows Forbes to publish financial stories at a volume no human journalist could hope to produce. In fact, Forbes says the partnership allows them to publish profit forecasts for 5,000 corporations, which was previously unimaginable. If you need another startling statistic, consider this: according to Narrative Science chief scientist and co-founder, Kris Hammond, by 2025, 90 percent of the news read by the general public will be generated by computers. Just let that sink in — are you still positive this post wasn’t written by a machine?
Not all doom and gloom
So if these algorithms are to become our new content-creating overloads, what’s a human to do? Well, there are a few things to keep in mind. First and foremost, recognize these advancements are going to help content creators do their jobs, not supplant them entirely. A blog post from the Associated Press in January 2015 toutes the software as more of a badly needed crutch for overworked news teams, not a harbinger of doom:
“We estimate the automation of earnings reports has freed up about 20 percent of the time that we had spread throughout the staff in producing earnings reports each quarter,” the blog posts says. “Our goals are to break more business news than our competitors, aim higher on investigative and explanatory journalism and focus more of our work on the general consumer… Automation is helping us free up resources to do all of these things.”
These algorithms can essentially take the tedious parts out of writing, community managing or content creation, and allow the human to focus on the important stuff.
As a further example, an article about Narrative Science in The Atlantic explains how the software could be used to comb through the massive troves of government data, such as the flood of information released by the Wikileaks scandal. The software could scour the information in seconds, and surface the real gems of information to human journalists. “With bales and bales of mind-numbing government and corporate documents to sort through, Narrative Science could eventually help writers find the needle in the haystack,” the article explains. Imagine how much more in depth a human could go into a story if all the information was already right there, gathered for them?
What’s more, these algorithms could be used to produce all the content no one wants to write anyway. For example, an iPhone app called Gamecharger uses Narrative Science software to report scores on Little League games, which are then read by the Little Leaguers, their families, and probably no one else. Quill puts human touches on these stories too. It can be programmed to include quirky, idiomatic phrases often employed by sports writers, making stories written by the software and stories written by a human almost indistinguishable.
Replace “Little League gamers” with “tweet copy” or “email newsletter copy,” and all the sudden these algorithms become timesavers that do all the dirty, repetitive work that can often take up the bulk of a marketer or community manager’s work day.
Finally, we do have one huge advantage over even the most sophisticated software program — our humanity. Flesh and blood people are still far and away the best storytellers and connectors. Although these software programs may help us with number crunching, fact finding and automating mundane tasks, they may never be able to convey an idea or communicate with passion the way a real journalist, marketer or copywriter can. While it’s worth noting that many top scientists and tech entrepreneurs have expressed fears that artificial intelligence may soon supersede humans by developing a higher level of “consciousness,” until then human beings are going to excel at creating emotional connections.
These tools — and they’re just that, tools — will simply help all of us do our jobs faster and more efficiently, and leave time for us to focus on bigger, more important things we actually want to spend time on. Hasn’t that been the goal all along anyway?