A Shot over the Storytelling Bow and the Algorithmic Canon Ball

Hombre frente a un robot

Something has been digitally gnawing at me since last March when an article appeared in the New York Times Sunday Review titled “If an Algorithm Wrote This, How Would You Even Know?” And, not weeks later I heard a story on NPR “Robot Reporters: Software Turns Raw Data Into Sports, Financial Reports.” Certainly many a job in our economy has been “automated” replacing the human touch, but storytelling? As my level of compassion rose for replaced factory workers, a certain righteous indignation began to bubble up. After all, storytelling is the essence of how we learn about who we are- where we have been, how we behave, where we are going. As a writer, I actually “feel” the words as they fill the blank space on a page. I can labor over one line for a good amount of time just to find the right words. I am painting pictures with narrative that hopefully, in the best of cases, transports the reader or the audience into a world where those words evoke images, feelings, and a certain identification with the characters and the situation; and moves them. Can you program heart into an algorithm?

At the center of this “artificially intelligent” revolution is a company called Narrative Science staking it’s claim as the leader in “Big Data Storytelling.” Chief Scientist (and possibly soon to be arch enemy of authors, screenwriters and The Moth storytellers) Kris Hammond in his interview with NPR’s Robert Siegel described how the company’s Quill software works. “It’ll grind through what it has to do and produce something that is absolutely human-readable and, in fact, it is indistinguishable from something a human has written.” Whaaaaaaaat? I wonder if it puts on Sinatra and pours two fingers of single malt scotch before it does this. Is there no nuance? Tongue-in-cheek? Irony? Here’s a little quiz from the New York Times. See if you can tell the difference. If you can’t then please buy my book so the blood I left on the keyboard won’t have been shed in vain.

Granted right now the software is being applied to news, finance and data. So perhaps I shouldn’t be all that concerned. After all, it doesn’t do dialogue…yet.  But, the nuclear genie is out of the narrative bottle. Even Forbes and Deloitte are using the software! Yes, Forbes. I had a well of compassion for journalists but this week it got deeper. Builtinchicago.com wrote this referring Narrative Science “Tuesday, the company announced the release of “Practical Artificial Intelligence For Dummies®, Narrative Science Edition” in order to give its readers a better grasp on the current state of AI and how businesses can best leverage AI to benefit in the future.” So, I am left to ponder the question of when Quill will write its first novel or screenplay. Perhaps Siri will accept the Oscar®. Oh well. I can always take up professional chess. Oh wait…never mind.