Machines that tell stories. What potential do they hold — both commercially and otherwise? How might they affect the professions of journalism and technical communication?
I came upon a fascinating article this week, titled New technologies and their stories. The article’s contents were curated by design researcher Hanna Zoon at the Fontys University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands.
I greatly enjoyed the article, despite a couple of hindrances in reading it. First, Zoon often refers to herself in the third person. Second, the article is in German. (My rusty high-school German, buttressed by Google Translate, rode to the rescue.)
Zoon starts by saying “Computers can do different things than people.” Then she describes some of those things.
Robot journalism, or software that automatically disseminates reports about, for example, sports scores or seismic activity. This has been around for a while (I wrote about it five years ago) and I daresay it’s already commonplace. In software technical communication we have Javadoc, which generates documentation from comments in the source code, and tools like DrExplain, which take some of the drudgery out of documenting user interfaces. But both of those are only as good as the strings in the comments and in the UI.
Narrative Science’s Quill, which claims to generate narratives — or stories — based on raw data. This one is new to me, and I’d like to hear your opinions about whether it really works.
Infographics: Although Zoon cites the work of Edward Tufte — who stands head and shoulders above everyone in conveying useful information through pictures — she’s not at all upbeat about the future of infographics. I agree with her, if only because there’s just one Edward Tufte and nobody else comes close to matching his skill level.
The Quantified Self, an attempt to describe a person’s life in terms of data, for example the amount of food consumed. While the Internet of Things will make it very easy to amass this kind of data, for me the whole thing has a whiff of the Harper’s Index: the output is more whimsical than useful.
IBM Watson, the Jeopardy-winning computer that now, apparently, also writes stories. Zoon doesn’t have much to say about Watson — except to call it “artificial intelligence at its best.” From what I’ve seen, Watson is adept at making inferences from the data it crunches. But even the great and powerful Watson struggles to make the kind of meaningful inferences that humans make every day. For at least the time being, people can do different things than computers.
Zoon ends by posing a tantalizing question: what ethical issues might arise from mechanized storytelling? I’m not sure. Despite what I wrote in 2010, I don’t see the robots putting journalists or technical writers out of work — at least not for a while. But could copyright issues arise when stories are written by software rather than by people? Could a company be held liable if its software robot dispensed medical advice that proved to be faulty?
I’d love to hear what you think about all of this, in the Comments section.