Why you should care about the  Rise of Robot-Writers

On NPR’ Science Friday recently, I listened to a fascinating story about two artificial intelligence (AI) researchers whose work is giving rise to robot writers or author bots. What!?

Yes, robots which (perhaps, we should say who) tell stories. Yikes! My first thought:

Is it the end for hundreds of thousands of us who write for a living? Do we go the way of typewriters, telephones, and textbooks. Given I’m prone to dramatic conclusions, I must investigate further.

Computer scientists Mark Riedl and Tony Veale are working diligently to get computers to tell stories and to think in metaphor.

Mark Riedl’s Scheherazade software program writes stories authored by pre-programmed robots. He believes his online application may one day write a fictional novel. Tony Veale’s Metaphor Magnet plays with language and programs computers to “think metaphorically” with his application. Sadly, our synapses can’t fire fast enough to generate the output of a bot.

Narrative Science of Chicago has created “exceptional software, starting with [its] advanced natural language generation platform, Quill, that transforms data into meaningful and insightful narratives people can simply read.” The developer claims these digital stories produce actionable information that will make people smarter. Well, I contend a how-to article or technical manual produced by an expert writer delivers a better outcome. Right?


Although we writers must hunt harder for work in the digital era, staying on top of this bot phenomenon might stave off our demise. After all, how do you train a left-brain robot to write like a right-brain human?  And where in the body does emotion and creativity reside? Can it be duplicated with an algorithm wrapped in circuitry stuffed into a titanium body?

How we build language and connect to each other with words defines our humanity. The art of telling stories is as old mankind and deeply embedded into our psyche. We tell stories to teach, to inform, to dream, to inspire, to document, to communicate, to honor, to imagine, and to entertain.  Can a robot do that? Guess we’ll find out.

Bot Farms

Besides, who wants to consume stories from a bot farm. Rather, I want to turn the lovely pages of a good book, suspended in disbelief till the next paragraph. What glorious thing can I learn from this writer I’ll only know through her voice on the page. Bots as Baldwin or Browning or Bronte? I don’t think so.

A bot can’t curl up at night and comfort me with a story. No bot can stand in front of my bookcases while I run my fingers across the ribs of hundreds of short story editions. No bot can keep me riveted until the moment the character reveals her motive for evil. Can it?

Power of Algorithms

Computer-generated story telling is in its infancy. And it is here to stay. Already, news stories on earthquakes or fantasy football recaps pepper news content. We may not see a Frank Deford analysis in the folds of the sports pages quite yet, but it’s coming. Today, Scheherazade can write a story about any topic you ask of it because it has been programmed with gazillions of algorithms that guide the writing process.

Most story tellers follow beloved guidelines like beginning-middle-end, the 5 Ws, plot, characters, dialogue, parallelism, imagery, rising conflict, turning point, and resolution. To my amazement, bots can be programmed to apply these same techniques we learned in creative writing classes, albeit with a cold, logical, detached perspective— a la Mr. Spock.

Blog4_TellMeAStory-edit-3Humans Like Machines

Research has shown that humans like this perspective.  We don’t want our bots to pretend to be human; but we do value a machine’s assessment of human concepts.  And even though we are hardwired to tell stories, we’ll forgive our bots for lack of creativity, for making a few mistakes, for not understanding how it feels to ride a rollercoaster, sip a smoothie, or dance till dawn.

For all of us who love to write, beware. Keep your creative skills steely sharp. For all those who hate to write, relief is on its way. Maybe not in my lifetime. But perhaps in yours. When the radio host asked Riedl if a bot could write a great novel, he said, “not without human intervention.” Whew!  Veale, when asked, said he was “skeptical”, although he believes within five years the bots will be able to write great jokes! Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about. The universe knows we always need a good laugh.

Something good is about to happen,