Writer’s block

Feb 09 2014, 02:02 IST
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SummaryWill machines replace humans in creating content?

There is no question that the printed word, whether books, newspapers or magazines, is coming under increasing pressure, as e-readers and online news portals become more popular. Now, there’s a new threat and it comes, inevitably, from technology. Narrative Science, a Chicago-based startup, has developed a platform that writes articles merely by scanning data and reports. In fact, many of their current clients are magazines, predominantly business-related ones, but, for them, it’s a tempting way to cut costs. Most business magazines have people who do the real donkey work, compiling financial data, stock market reports, currency rates and fluctuations, company results and so on. What Narrative Science has done is create software that replicates this data collection, formatting and presentation. Indeed, it goes beyond that. The company says their software can generate a prose analysis that’s also readable.

Where Narrative Science scores is its ability to scan and analyse a huge amount of data, big data as it is called, in a comparatively short span of time. Journalists have little time or energy to sift through such massive amounts of facts and figures. Moreover, Narrative Science can search the data and pull out significant spikes or trends and weave a story around it. It can, for instance, scan stock data and pinpoint a company that is doing remarkably well, a company not in the public eye and, therefore, easy to miss by a human researcher. This is, therefore, applicable to other areas where statistics and number crunching are essential, sports roundups, for instance, consumer data and sales figures, which show a definite trend, or even medical research.

All this has raised legitimate concerns that Narrative Science (and its imitators in other countries) with the ability to generate cheap, almost instant content, will make human writers obsolete. There may be some truth to that, but the answer is actually quite complex. We all know data is valuable, but what Narrative Science does is focus on the most valuable part—the insights that the data offers, the stories that emerge from their data mining. However, the software used can only highlight certain aspects or trends, it needs a human brain and journalistic experience to make it a readable piece of prose. In other words, what the company sells to clients is produced by cross-functional teams of computer scientists and writers. Yet, increasingly, as the software is improved and story formats established, there is

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