Assault on Writers From Automated Software

A stockbroker monitors share prices on his computer screens at Shore Capital Group Ltd. brokerage in London, U.K., on Tuesday
A stockbroker monitors share prices on his computer screens at Shore Capital Group Ltd. brokerage in London, U.K., on Tuesday, March 26, 2013. Cyprus dodged a disorderly default and an unprecedented exit from the euro when the country's lawmakers struck a deal early yesterday with international creditors for the second time in nine days, underscoring the difficulties of crisis management in the region. Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Professional writers today are in a crisis. Between millions of writers who are writing books and articles for free, celebrities with million dollar book deals (often written by an unknown ghostwriter), e-books transforming traditional publishers and reducing advances, and consolidations and disappearances of many book, newspaper, and magazine publishers, there are fewer paid writing opportunities -- and those that exist are often paying less. After all, there are many more non-professional writers and fewer opportunities, so it's simple supply and demand market economics.

And now there is still another assault on writers that is already here and will only get worse. The assault comes in the form of automated software that writes books and articles, further eliminating the potential jobs for writers. Sure the advantage of the software is that it can do a lot of routine writing tasks much faster and more cheaply, and as the software gets better and better -- just a matter of time, it can do more and more sophisticated writing, and the more it sounds like a real writer is writing the book and article, the more writers will be displaced. Consider the writer just another casualty of the technology revolution -- much like outsourcing and automation has eliminated many factory and service jobs to other countries, especially in Asia, or an army of helpful robots.

I became intrigued by this topic when as an author with two dozen e-books on Smashwords I read founder Mark Coker's "2013 Book Publishing Industry Predictions -- Indie Ebook Authors Take Charge," Among other things, Coker noted that "If Amazon could invent a system to replace the author from the equation, they'd do that," and went on to describe how one innovative publisher, ICON Group International has already patented a system that automatically generates non-fiction books, and he worries that as the field of artificial intelligence increases, "how long until novelists are disinter-mediated by machines." While Coker notes that over 100,000 titles by ICON are already available for sale on AMAZON, in fact, ICON's website boasts the company has published over 250,000 titles. And two other software developers, Narrative Science and Automated Insights are already doing this for clients. Right now the software is primarily used to turn large amounts of data, such as sports scores, medical research, and business stats, into insightful narratives. But it could be only a matter of time before the software starts taking over the work that journalists, non-fiction book writers, novelists, and other kinds of writers do.

So how does this all work? And I assure you, I'm writing this article! I checked out a series of articles and websites to find out.

First, take ICON International, founded by Professor Philip M. Parker, who calls himself "the most published author in the history of the planet," who as of April 2008 had already written 200,000 books, according to Noam Cohen's New York Times article "He Wrote 200,000 Books (but Computers Did Some of the Work").

Basically, Parker has developed computer algorithms that collect information on a subject which is already publicly available with the help of 60 to 70 computers and a half-dozen programmers to create books in a variety of genres. The typical books include health publications which provide information on over 700 diseases and conditions, such as The Official Patient's Sourcebook, the world outlook for different types of products such as The 2003-2008 World Outlook for Wrapped Cakes, country outlooks, such as The 2007-2012 Outlook for Deli Foods in the United States, competitiveness studies, such as the relative performance and productivity across 230 countries, trade studies of exports and imports, and company benchmarks for financial and labor productivity. But the company has also created crossword puzzles, simple poetry books, and a series of Webster's Quotations, Facts, and Phrases and is developing the software to produce romance novels, which are often written based on a popular formula. Plus now a company called EdgeMaven, is using the databases and the patents of Professor Parker to create paperback books, ebooks, games, and video titles, including TV segments, features, and mixed-media titles) for other clients by compiling information to draw basic conclusions, applying a formula to a genre, or preparing a report, film, or game as a specialist in that field might, such as writing a econometrics report.

Meanwhile, Narrative Science has created its own software to turn data, such as sports statistics, company financial reports, and housing starts and sales and turns it into articles which sound like they are written by a real writer, such as in this opening sentence featured in a New York Times article by Steve Lohr: "In Case You Wondered, a Real Human Wrote This Column."

As the computer generated article starts off: "WISCONSIN appears to be in the driver's seat en route to a win, as it leads 51-10 after the third quarter."

According to Lohr, Narrative Science, led by two of the company's founders, Kris Hamman and Larry Birnbaum, co-directors of the Intelligent Information Laboratory at Northwestern University, has developed software based on more than a decade of research to mimic human reasoning so the articles sound like a real human wrote them. For the most part, the technology is being used to help publications with limited budgets provide additional coverage, such for recaps of local sports and the quarterly financial results of local public companies. But the big problem for writers is the potential for these computer generated articles to totally replace them. As Jerry Battiste writes in The Starved Writer "Will Computers Replace Writers? (Looks As If They Already Have),"

"The stories produced by the program designed by the company, Narrative Science, are indistinguishable from those written by living breathing reports. Editors are unable to tell the difference and in tests, usually prefer the prose composed by the computer to those created by human hands and minds." In fact, the computers have gotten so good that they can now write "just about any kind of content, using any kind of data," and they can adapt it to different styles, publication tone, and specialized vocabulary. While a writer may start the process by customizing the existing platform, then the computer takes over to come up with the facts and inferences drawn from the client data, as Joe Fassler notes in an Atlantic article: "Can the Computers at Narrative Science Replace Paid Writers."

And now still another company Automated Insights, based in Durham, North Carolina is doing much the same thing, though targeting companies that want a compelling narrative to enhance their data. They start by receiving data from the customer, public repositories, and third-party data providers, analyze the data, derive and prioritize insights using powerful algorithms that determine significance based on context and uniqueness, create a narrative that tells the story in various forms from a long-form narrative, to bullet-points, tweets, and headlines, and then publish it in real time forms, including web, mobile, Twitter, email, and books.

In short, the basic technology is already there and is likely to increasingly take over jobs once held by writers. Sure writers can always write free articles and celebrity writers -- or writers interviewing and ghostwriting for celebrities -- will always be in demand. But what about other writers? And as this software becomes sophisticated, it can be used to create art, music, virtually any kind of artform, and perhaps it already has. As for me -- I think this could be a signal for taking a long vacation. At least, a computer can't enjoy the vacation for me.

Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D. is the author of over 50 books with major publishers and has published 30 books through her own company Changemakers Publishing and Writing. She writes books and proposals for clients, and has written and produced over 50 short videos through her company Changemakers Productions Her latest books include: The Very Next New Thing: Commentaries on the Latest Developments that Will Be Changing Your Life and Living in Limbo: From the End to New Beginnings