Just one day into my new gig as TeleRead Associate Editor, and already it looks like I might as well cash in my chips. At least, according to Gartner. Because as per their latest futurology, writers are on the way out, due to be replaced by machines.
A highly specific sub-class of writers, at least. (But for how long?) Delivering Gartner’s Top Predictions at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2015 in Orlando, Daryl Plummer, VP and Gartner Fellow, gave as #1 of his top ten predictions that: “Robo-writers create content. By 2018, 20 percent of business content will be authored by machines.”
The full prediction reads:
Content that is based on data and analytical information will be turned into natural language writing by technologies that can proactively assemble and deliver information through automated composition engines. Content currently written by people, such as shareholder reports, legal documents, market reports, press releases and white papers are prime candidates for these tools.
Yes, that’s not creative writing. But it is a highly lucrative sideline for many experienced financial and business writers, yours truly included. Even though writing an earnings report can be crushingly tedious. And press releases written by a software agent? That’s scary in several ways. It shows the pressure to push humans out of the equation, and just how formulaic and stereotyped certain types of business communications have become. And how fake and abused the whole concept of business communication is. After all, if a machine can write it, does anything but a machine need to read it?
Real flesh-and-blood authors may breathe a sigh of relief that it can never happen to them. But should they? One of George Orwell’s most caustic drops of satire in 1984 was his acid depiction of “the novel-writing machines in the Fiction Department” of the Ministry of Truth that compose pulp fiction for the proles, on an industrial basis much like 19th-century cotton mills. There you’ll find “the whole process of composing a novel, from the general directive issued by the Planning Committee down to the final touching-up by the Rewrite Squad,” and “Pornosec, the sub-section of the Fiction Department which turned out cheap pornography for distribution among the proles.” And what sort of works are those? “Oh, ghastly rubbish. They’re boring, really. They only have six plots, but they swap them round a bit.”
Remind you of anyone? I’m sure Barbara Cartland, with her 723 novels, could have stood in for one of the novel-writing machines. Or James Patterson, perhaps? Since so many of “his” novels are written with (or, whisper it not, by) co-writers, would anyone really notice if a machine did their job instead? At least then he wouldn’t have to put anyone else’s name on the cover …
The serious point is that if market forces are driving some literary genres to be ever more stereotyped and mechanical, then machines could one day take over the writing. Think it couldn’t happen to you, writers? Take a good look at what you write, and if you can honestly say to yourself that a machine could never write it, you’re safe. Otherwise …
P.s.: Gartner, could you predict an Orwellian dystopian future for us? Or don’t you need bother, because we’re already living in one?
I’m not sure that the business world is really ready for the formulaic rendering of shareholder reports, legal documents, market reports, press releases and white papers. Who knows what inconvenient truths might slip into the stream with disinterested machines simply reporting the facts? The business world still needs the wordsmith who can turn the appearance of a sow’s ear into the appearance of a silk purse.
The machines may get the first draft but there’s still lots of opportunity for human writers who will help employers maintain appearances.
As a writer of books, I think that I am safe. Fact is, no robo-writer can write the trash that I write.
Frank Lowney is right. The last thing many companies want is for their legal documents and shareholder reports is the objectivity of a computer. They want a human who is skilled enough to say something that provides cover if that document becomes evidence in a legal dispute, but whose real meaning doesn’t register in the minds of all but a few readers.
The original Google Settlement FAQ was absolutely brilliant in that respect, deceiving virtually every journalist who read it. Yet if you took the time to study the agreement itself, something none of them seemed to have done, you came away with a very different understanding. If you then returned to that FAQ, you could see what a masterpiece of deception it was. No computer could do that. It took lawyers, very clever and unprincipled lawyers.
Terms like “copyright interests” sounded pleasantly vague and harmless. They weren’t What the original agreement really meant was that every author on the planet whose book wasn’t in print effectively lost his U.S. copyright as far as Google and only Google was concerned. Note that this wasn’t a global library like the silly press was claiming. Only the U.S. copyright was stripped away. Those coming from outside the U.S. IP addresses could see nothing. And yet at the same time, a mere district court was presuming to abrogate the terms of an agreement (Berne) signed by some 170 countries. Berne could not be clearer that a book not in print lost none of its copyright protection.
That’s why the settlement fell apart in its last two months. A limited group of people—I was one—managed to get the true meaning of that settlements past all the lazy hype of the press, clueless reporters whose understanding came solely from a FAQ issued by one side in the dispute. Governments began to protest and when that happened, that little district court backed down.
And I might add that years later, reporters still haven’t learned why the settlement fell apart. They still believe that deceptive FAQ and their own reporting of it. Pitiful.