Will Writers Be Replaced By An Algorithm?

by Anne Wayman

writing robotAdvertising maven and LinkedIN group leader Leon Sterling pointed to an article in Wired called Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?

The short answer is if writers can’t be replaced right this minute, just wait a few. Instead of complaining about the off shoring of articles and the low pay, many of us will start whining about being replaced by an algorithm.

It turns out that a company called NarrativeScience has developed software that’s better than human beings at taking massive amounts of data and turning them into a, well, narrative that makes sense. And the darn thing (is software or an algorithm a thing?) can give you voice of a sort.

“You can get anything, from something that sounds like a breathless financial reporter screaming from a trading floor to a dry sell-side researcher pedantically walking you through it,” says Wired quoting the company.

Until now we’ve left this sort of data analysis to journalists and other writers who, frankly, haven’t been really good at it. Not for lack of trying. The human mind isn’t designed to process the fire hose of data we’ve got now. We’re fortunate when someone can help us make sense of even a tiny fraction of it.


While I’m delighted at anything that can take a literal mountain of data and turn it into prose I can understand I’m not sure how I feel about it being able to speak in a particular voice, like… well, like me. (Does this also mean we’ve finally got a machine that passes the Turing Test?)

Of course it doesn’t matter how I feel about it, it’s happening.

The Atlantic  also has an article on Narrative Sciences called Can the Computers at Narrative Science Replace Paid Writers?

As a publication that is often about writing or about thought and writing, it quotes Narrative Sciences Chief Technology Officer  Kris Hammond’s as saying “In the long run, our technology ends up being the mediator between data and the human experience.”

The question then becomes, I suppose, what about areas of human experience that can’t be quantified? Is that where we writers will end up?


Actually many of us are there already. The posts here are hardly data driven. Neither are the articles mentioned here in Wired and The Atlantic. In fact, much of what we love reading has nothing to do with data at all.

Which is hopeful.

The Atlantic also quotes Narrative Sciences as saying “But there are so many stories to be told that are not data-driven. That’s what journalists should focus on, right?”

That magazine ends with ” The net contributions of science and art, history and philosophy, can’t parse the full complexity of a human instant, let alone a life. For as long as this is true, we’ll still have a role in writing.”

Which is the good news for us.

What can you write better than any algorithm?

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Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by 50 Watts

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Content Spree May 10, 2012 at 1:43 pm

I remember reading an article similar to this a few years ago. This is a very long ways off… An algorithm or computer can’t understand tone, sarcasm and context of a given subject. A lot of things will be replaced by machines but it will be awhile before writing is – good writing anyway.

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annew May 11, 2012 at 9:19 am

Ah, but it’s closer than I thought.

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Samaira Jonathon May 3, 2012 at 2:27 am

Hey Anne,

While there is no doubt that such a software may be able to do a fair job with content that is high on numerical and factual data, it will surely not even come close to a human’s creativity in writing. It cannot bring in the emotions and feelings that a human can, most of the time we need much more than simply conveying information from our pieces of written word.

But yes, it amazes me to think how fast the world around us is changing, with technology making us humans so much more easily replaceable by machines.
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annew May 3, 2012 at 8:53 am

All true, Samaira.

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Valerie Bolden-Barrett May 1, 2012 at 2:04 pm

Interesting post, Anne. I hope there still will be a need for the kind of analyses and nuance-recognition that maybe only human writers can provide (?). We’ll see….
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annew May 2, 2012 at 10:09 am

Valerie, suspect that nuance and metaphor are still beyond machines… although there could be some interesting nuance come out of data crunching I suppose.

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Carol Bryant May 1, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Rod Serling comes to mind here. Someday robots will write and robots will read it and we all can sit home while robots rub our feet.

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annew May 2, 2012 at 10:06 am

I don’t know, Carol, I’m old enough to remember being told by this time we’d all be flying our cars and would have clothes that didn’t need washing and dishes that would clean themselves… and yeah, Rod Serling for sure.

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Carrie Schmeck May 1, 2012 at 8:00 am

Interesting piece. I’m heading over to read those source articles. Thanks for the alert.

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annew May 1, 2012 at 9:20 am

And come back and tell us what you think, Carrie.

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ella May 1, 2012 at 3:51 am

sounds like a sci-fi moving coming to life! this is really interesting but kinda creepy with the voice and all. thanks for the report :)
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annew May 1, 2012 at 9:13 am

Yeah, I felt the creepy feeling you felt… and it’s also fascinating, at least to me.

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pb April 30, 2012 at 6:17 pm

The great strength of the mind’s computer is that though it may not have the retentive powers of its mechanical competition, it has the ability to tap into that product. That competition will find it difficult, however, to tap into the often metaphorically-enhanced realm of human experience.

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annew May 1, 2012 at 9:21 am

Yep, exactly.

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Greg April 30, 2012 at 5:35 pm

All I can say is – no way.

Machines can’t do human consciousness and I hate ‘the mind is a computer’ comparisons. Total BS in my book.

I’m not too worried. You can dump all kinds of data into a computer (for example, a library full of books), but the computer hasn’t lived inside those books like I have.

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annew May 1, 2012 at 9:09 am

I agree, Greg. I also know everything keeps changing.

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