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Could You Tell If a Computer Penned This Post?

by Adriana Lee | October 18, 2011October 18, 2011 4:25 pm PST

When I read through Mike Perlman’s latest “Delightful Rant,” in which he… uh… rants against himself, it somehow made me think of a New York Times story from last month titled, “In Case You Wondered, a Real Human Wrote This Column.” The article talks about an Illinois company called Narrative Science that has pushed the boundaries of artificial intelligence, producing code capable of producing content that can mimic human reasoning.

This is huge. Technology could just use a “fill in the blank” style of writing (á la “Mad Libs”), but that generally produces work that feels inauthentic and mechanical. Narrative Science accomplished something different here — they actually manage to imbue stories with nuance and cadence to create pieces that are rather humanesque.

Full disclosure: As if you can’t tell, I’m a writer. Fullest disclosure: I’m a writer who’s kind of freaked out by this. Sure, if this takes hold, then I and my brethren are out of work. And yet, I still can’t help but be kind of amazed at how far technology has advanced. As it is, several sports outlets are utilizing this form of artificial intelligence to turn a list of scores and rankings into readable — and arguably enjoyable — articles. Given that technology fanboism has been likened to sports, with fans supporting their teams (i.e. favorite brands or platforms), it’s not illogical to think that the leap to tech reporting might not be all that far behind.

With the rise of web reporting comes an increasing demand for instant information — sometimes within mere moments of news breaking. How can human beings possibly react that fast? If things continue to move toward instant, immediate response, then I could see a serious demand for Narrative Science’s technology. But science can only go so far (right?). I want to believe that readers would be able distinguish if a work was penned by a sentient being or not, and that they would choose works from a scribe with a beating heart, a soul, and a wicked sense of delivery. After all, what fun is it to flame a writer that has no feelings or ego to check?

So is there still a place for differing editorial points of view? Could a razor-sharp wit, farce or stylistic delivery ever come from a few lines of code? Do you think you could even tell the difference between an article written by a computer or a human? Before you answer, here’s the lead for that NYT article. It was pulled from a news brief that was created within one minute of the third quarter’s end:

“WISCONSIN appears to be in the driver’s seat en route to a win, as it leads 51-10 after the third quarter. Wisconsin added to its lead when Russell Wilson found Jacob Pedersen for an eight-yard touchdown to make the score 44-3 … .”

So what do you think? Were you able to tell that this news brief intro was written by software? How would you feel if all or most of your content was created by technology?

[via New York Times]


Adriana Lee

Adriana is the resident writer-slash-culture vulture who has written about everything from smartphones, tablets, apps, accessories, and small biz...

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