Software is writing news stories with increasing frequency. In a recent example, an LA Times writer-bot wrote and posted a snippet about an earthquake three minutes after the event. The LA Times claims they were first to publish anything on the quake, and outside the USGS, they probably were.
The LA Times example isn’t special because it’s the first algorithm to write a story on a major news site. With the help of Chicago startup and robot writing firm, Narrative Science, algorithms have basically been passing the Turing test online for the last few years.
This is possible because some kinds of reporting are formulaic. You take a publicly available source, crunch it down to the highlights, and translate it for readers using a few boiler plate connectors. Hopefully, this makes it more digestible.
Indeed, Kristian Hammond, cofounder and CTO of Narrative Science, thinks some 90% of the news could be written by computers by 2030.
I imagine the computer populating a Venn diagram. In one circle, it adds hard data (earnings, sports stats, earthquake readings), in another, a selection of journalistic clichés—and where the two intersect, an article is born.
In truth, it’s a little more complicated than that. In engineering their software, Narrative worked with trained journalists to help the software determine an angle. For example, in the case of sports, the algorithm answers key questions like, “Who won the game and by how much? Was it a comeback or a blowout? Any heroics or notable stats?”
The program chooses an article template, strings together sentences, and spices them up with catch phrases: “It was a flawless day at the dish for the Giants.” The tone is colorfully prosaic, but human enough.
Early on, Narrative applied its algorithms to Little League baseball games. Participating parents would enter game stats into an iPhone app called GameChanger and the app would spit out written game summaries.
Since then, they’ve supplied content to major news sites. Forbes is open about its use of Narrative’s software, including an explanation in the article. The LA Times earthquake story, written by an algorithm created by one of their staff, included a disclaimer. But many more big sites anonymously use algorithms to write simple stories.
Narrative’s approach can be applied elsewhere too. The firm recently launched an app that works with Google Analytics to transform raw website metrics (traffic, sources, referrals, demographics) into accessible, natural language reports. These could be useful in any business, a kind of automated analyst to help make sense of big data sets.
The software clearly has some native advantages over the typical human.
For example, the LA earthquake hit at 6:25am. I doubt many West Coast journalists were at their desk that early. And if they were, few would have cared to scoop what amounted to a pretty inconsequential earthquake. Even if someone had been on it—how many could have penned and published a typo-free article in three minutes?