Brands

Does Your Brand Newsroom Need a Robot Writer?

By Celine Roque September 17th, 2014

If you’ve spent any time reading on the web the past week, odds are you’ve read something written by a robot—and you didn’t even realize it.

Robot writers are algorithms that collect and analyze data and then turn them into readable narratives. Many news sites like the Los Angeles Times and Forbes are already using them. Even Wikipedia has articles that weren’t written by humans.

Reception to robot journalists has been mixed: Some see how robots can be useful, while others take this as another sign that creative professionals are being devalued.

To see for ourselves whether these robot writers can be useful or how they might impact creative work, we can start by getting to know one of them.

Meet the robot journalist that writes for AP and Yahoo

Created by Automated Insights, Wordsmith is a platform that can take any kind of structured data and generate a plain English narrative from it. Since it doesn’t need breaks, days off, or long research hours, it can produce 2,000 simple articles per second. It is on track to producing over 1 billion stories by the end of the year.

What might be surprising to most is that Wordsmith’s “voice” isn’t completely robotic—it can adapt, depending on the context. For example, it’s written some objective, matter-of-fact pieces, such as this Radio Shack corporate earnings report for the Associated Press. But it can also generate more lively, conversational pieces, such as the personalized, trash-talking Fantasy Football recaps for Yahoo.

However, there are significant limits to its powers.

Can a robot be a storyteller and thought leader?

Though robot journalists can construct certain types of narratives from data, it might have trouble with a key component of publishing: storytelling and thought leadership.

“I am the person at the company who probably does most of our thought leadership pieces,” said James Kotecki, manager of media and public relations for Automated Insights. “It’s certainly not the case that a robot or algorithm has taken my job.”

As an example, Kotecki cites the automated corporate earnings reports generated by Wordsmith for the Associated Press. These short reports provide details about a company’s gains and losses, how they fared compared to analyst predictions, and how the stock price is doing. As a result, their journalists no longer have to deal with mindless number crunching, data processing, and formulaic writing.

“Then if you want to have any additional context or qualitative analysis, you need to have a human as part of that,” Kotecki said. “That means that the journalists involved are still going to go out there and get a quote from the CEO, they’re still going to put whatever happened in their earnings report into a broader context.”

In that sense, a robot writer can serve as a useful editorial assistant.

Putting data into a broader context is especially important for brands where humanitarian and environmental issues are a key aspect of their messaging. Such brands can range from nonprofits like charity:water to companies like Chipotle, whose branding revolves around ethical food production, as well as the restorative narratives depicted in “This Built America,” which was underwritten by Ford Trucks. These approaches need to be compelling and authentic to impact an audience.

This is a significant limitation of robot writers, according to Dr. Noam Lemelshtrich Latar, founding dean of the Sammy Ofer School of Communications at IDC Herzliya. His research focuses on how artificial intelligence and robotics will impact the future of journalism.

“Yes, we can write algorithms that will investigate issues important to human survival, but only the human can think of what should be investigated,” he said. “They cannot think out of the AI box. The AI algorithms will never be able to catch up from these respects. Definitely not to protect our human rights or catch up with changing human values.”

The rise of hyper-scalable personalized content

Earlier this year, we covered three content formats that are about to take off, and one of these formats is personalized content and experiences. Robot writers are a boon to personalized content, since they can automatically segment the content depending on reader data and preferences. Wordsmith, for example, will have created a quarter-billion personalized Fantasy Football recaps by the end of the year. “Not only are your customers getting really engaging, extremely personalized content about what you’re selling or offering to them, but you’ve also collected their data willingly,” Kotecki said.

But the success of these personalized experiences is dependent on data, according to Dr. Lemelshtrich Latar.

“Assuming the digital profiles are accurate, this could have a great effect on the ROI of these businesses, their promotions strategies and their product development and design,” Lemelshtrich Latar said. “Knowing the preferences of their customers will allow these businesses to run effective targeted media campaigns and most important—offer their customers products that will fit their interests even before these customers realize it that these products appeal to them.”

R-O-I, Robot

For content marketers, robot writers can serve another function: analyzing and reporting marketing metrics. Wordsmith for Marketing, a smaller-scale version of the platform, integrates with Google Analytics and creates client reports for digital marketing agencies.

“Marketing agencies have teams of people where their sole responsibility might be reporting,” said Kieran Wilson, digital marketing manager at Automated Insights. “So instead of having people spend hours and hours in Google Analytics and analyzing and looking at trends and patterns and correlations and producing that report for their clients, it fully automates the process.”

More time for human journalists to “do human stuff”

“Can Wordsmith write a novel?” most people ask Kotecki. The answer is that it’s theoretically possible—if you can figure out a way to structure the data needed to compose a compelling story.

“The problem is that by the time you actually create that massive structured dataset about all the variables that would go into a fictional novel,” he said, “you would probably end up spending way more time creating the dataset and figuring out how to configure Wordsmith to write about it than you would’ve if you just wrote the novel the traditional way.”

In other words, robot journalists can definitely be useful for analyzing data and generating reports on that data in a natural language—and they can do this at scale. But it has serious limitations, and as a result, storytelling is still a human’s game.

“If we’re automating something, it’s going to be better and faster than what a human can do,” said Kotecki, “but that leaves more room actually for humans to do more exciting human stuff.”

Image by Charles Taylor
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