Over the past decade, as robots and other machines have begun to perform many jobs more efficiently and cost-effectively than the humans who previously did them, those of us in writing jobs have breathed a sigh of relief. Computers might be great at math, manufacturing, and data analysis. They might be able to fly planes and even perform surgery. But they can’t think, and therefore, they can’t write.
Except now they can.
You’ve probably already read at least one story written by artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms, i.e. “robo-writers.” And chances are, you didn’t even know it.
Recent studies from Karstad University in Sweden have determined that most people can’t distinguish between news reports written by journalists and those generated by sophisticated algorithms.
To prove it, The New York Times recently published a short quiz with blurbs written by both humans and computers, asking readers to guess which one wrote each piece of content. As a professional writer, I felt pretty certain I would pass this test. But I’m ashamed to say that after getting the first two answers correct, I bombed the rest of it. This is scary territory for freelance journalists and content marketers. If computers can write stories that so closely mimic natural language patterns—without typos, fact-checking mistakes or other human errors—should we start looking for new careers?
The short answer is no. But these technological developments do hint at some critical career advice for creative writers and marketers: If computers will soon take over news reporting, we need to get even better at storytelling. We must take steps to protect, value, and fine-tune our craft.
Robo-writing services are becoming a go-to resource in journalism, enabling quickly-generated content that reads as if an actual human being wrote it.
So far, most media outlets are using them to report straightforward news, such as sports highlights, financial reports, weather, and public emergency announcements.
The Associated Press, for example, creates more than 3,000 financial reports each quarter using the Wordsmith platform from Automated Insights. Forbes does the same thing with Narrative Science’s Quill platform. Likewise, The Los Angeles Times uses an algorithm called Quakebot to analyze geological data and report on earthquakes.
Articles generated by these robo-writers aren’t only accurate and “human sounding.” They can also be published within minutes of the data creation or release, giving computers the proverbial “scoop” over human journalists.
Now AI is moving on to bigger and better writing jobs. As New York Times writer Shelley Podolny reports:
Automated Insights states that its software created one billion stories last year, many with no human intervention; its home page, as well as Narrative Science’s, displays logos of customers all of us would recognize: Samsung, Comcast, The A.P., Edmunds.com and Yahoo. What are the chances that you haven’t consumed such content without realizing it?
Books are robo-written, too. Consider the works of Philip M. Parker, a management science professor at the French business school Insead: His patented algorithmic system has generated more than a million books, more than 100,000 of which are available on Amazon.
Is content marketing the next logical frontier for robo-writers? Forbes.com contributor Jayson DeMers thinks so. He writes:
Right now, human writers are available at a variety of expertise levels and costs, making it possible for any company to find a good fit for their own content needs. In the not-too-distant future, algorithms will outperform all of them, and at a far lower cost. Essentially, human writers will be completely out of the equation.
While DeMers is probably right to some degree, and content marketers may soon have these algorithms as colleagues, I refuse to see a future in which humans are left “out of the equation” entirely.
Why? Because knowledge is not the same thing as wisdom, and reporting is not the same thing as brand storytelling.
Okay, I’m a little scared of robots. As a science-fiction junkie, I’ve been conditioned by books, movies, and the Syfy Channel to believe the creation of AI ultimately doesn’t end well for the human race. (If you’ve ever seen iRobot or Battlestar Galactica, you know what I’m talking about.) Even Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and other leading scientists are more than a little nervous about what AI could become (Musk refers to it as “summoning the demon”).
But that’s another issue entirely. Robot-soldier paranoia aside, I’m not scared that computers will seize all writing jobs and leave human wordsmiths in the unemployment line.
Here are three reasons why:
Personal stories and shared experiences are how human beings connect with one another, and a powerful way for brand storytellers to connect with consumers. By including personal anecdotes in content marketing, writers provide powerful examples that readers can relate to or that put ideas into context. Sharing personal experiences is also a great way for writers to build credibility, to essentially say, “I know what I’m talking about, because I’ve been there and done that.”
But robo-writers don’t have personal stories to share. They can’t draw from the wisdom of experience or share anecdotes that demonstrate empathy. Robo-writers don’t know how readers feel, because they don’t feel. But human beings do.
Content marketers don’t just tell their own stories or the brand’s stories. They also tell customers’ stories. Doing that requires in-depth interviews, robust conversations, critical thinking skills and the ability to ask smart questions, followed by even smarter follow-up questions.
While robo-writers might be great at assimilating information, they don’t know how to make personal connections with interview subjects and pull out the really juicy tidbits that make for powerful emotional storytelling. But a great writer does.
Writers are always reading, listening, and learning. We are a curious and passionate bunch, and those qualities spur creativity. We see connections that other people don’t see, and help them see those connections too. We don’t just write stories; we find stories and generate new ideas.
Robo-writers, on the other hand, merely rehash ideas. They might have a world of information at their disposal and be capable of conducting research in a few seconds that would take human beings hours or even days. But there’s a difference between finding information and making interesting, creative connections.
BOTTOM LINE: Emotional storytelling and complex insights that come from real-life experience is still the domain of the human brain. Advances in writing-based AI simply challenges human writers to get better at great storytelling. It’s also a call to action for brand marketers to invest in solid writers who are willing to research, interview, improve their craft and put together complete content marketing stories.
In other words, robo-writers are simply challenging us to put more humanity, creativity, and hard work into our writing jobs. And that’s really not such a bad thing, now is it?
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