The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

January 25, 2014

Rise of the machines: Robot writers the wave of the future?

By Jeff Mullin, columnist
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Rosie is coming.

Rosie, for those of you too young to remember, was the robot maid in the cartoon “The Jetsons,” which made its debut on prime time TV in 1962.

Rosie did all the housework at the Jetson family home in the year 2062 in Orbit City. Of course, with all the high-tech, automated appliances throughout the house — like a push button meal maker — there really wasn’t much work for Rosie to do, except help raise the children and trying to keep bumbling but well-meaning father George out of trouble.

Rosie, as it turns out, was a long outdated model robot, but the family fell in love with her and couldn’t bear to trade her in for a newer model.

Robots have long been a part of popular culture, and today they are part of our everyday lives — only not quite the way “The Jetsons” imagined.

Robots are used extensively in manufacturing. Chances are good that your car was produced at least in part by robots. Those nifty Roomba robots are good at cleaning our floors, and many have paired with the family cat to make amusing videos. Medical robots can assist with surgeries, are used to aid rehabilitation and can allow doctors to remotely communicate with patients.

A recent report published in “The Economist” says nearly half of American jobs could be automated in the next couple of decades.

Authors Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne say many workers will be supplanted by machines.

They predict telemarketers, title examiners, sewer workers, mathematical technicians (whatever in the heck those are), insurance underwriters, watch repairers, cargo and freight agents, tax preparers, photographic process workers, new accounts clerks, library technicians and data entry keyers will be replaced by machines in the next 10 to 20 years.

Those most likely to survive the rise of the machines, according to Frey and Osborne, are supervisors in the firefighting and mechanical realms, oral surgeons, health care social workers, prosthetists, occupational therapists, audiologists, mental health social workers, emergency management directors and recreational therapists.

Thankfully the article doesn’t mention anything about newspaper columnists. But there are already so-called robot reporters.

A Chicago firm called Narrative Science has developed an algorithm that allows computers to write news and sports stories.

Narrative Science’s computer gathers and sifts mounds of data, then, relying on templates produced by human journalists the company calls “meta writers,” and cranks out reams of prose, both prosaic and poetic.

To date, most of the stories have been sports related. Parents of little league baseball players plug in game data to a smartphone app and, voila, Narrative Science churns out game stories. The firm’s robot writers also have produced financial and business stories.

There are, apparently, several advantages to droid reporters. They don’t make mistakes. They don’t require a salary or benefits, they don’t get sick, they don’t take vacations or coffee breaks, and they can be programmed to slant their articles any way the client chooses. For instance, in writing those little league baseball reports, parents quickly made it clear they didn’t care to read about errors made by their children, so the Narrative Science writer bot was programmed to accentuate the positive.

I like to tell myself there is no way a computer or a robot could do what I do, but the people who built these ink-stained-wretch-bots disagree.

Kristian Hammond, co-founder of Narrative Science, predicts that in 15 years, more than 90 percent of the news you read every day will be written by computers. Hammond was recently asked if a robo-writer would win a Pulitizer Prize in the next 20 years. He replied it would happen in five.

I don’t buy that. Computers are like Joe Friday from the old “Dragnet” series, “Just the facts, ma’am.” They aren’t big into nuance, subtlety, emotion.

Can a computer describe the beauty of a sunset, impart the pain of loss, capture the sound of a baby’s laugh, tell the story of lives shattered by a tornado, detail the joy of a soldier reunited with his family, suss out when there is more to the story than officials are letting on? Can a robot produce prose that can elicit anger, joy, laughter or tears?

I doubt it. But perhaps that’s wishful thinking.

In the coming decades robots and other marvelous machines will undoubtedly come along to supplement the abilities of human beings, but they will never supplant them.

Hey boss, what is that bald, pot-bellied robot with reading glasses, a mustache and crumbs on his sweater doing sitting at my desk? I thought I was so loveable, that you couldn’t bear to replace me with a newer model.

Oh.



Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at jmullin@enidnews.com.