Until recently, for me the concept of ‘Man vs. Machine’ summoned images of a human world chess genius fighting an inevitable checkmate, two all-time Jeopardy champions defeated by IBM’s Watson computer and even Arnold Schwarzenegger saving the world from Skynet. It somehow never occurred to me that my relatively tame desk job could be the battleground for the next great contest.
Recently, NPR produced a segment on a company called Automated Insights. The company developed a program that automatically generates news stories. Sounds like something in the early stages of development, with years before real world adoption, right? I’m afraid not my fellow human. The Automated Insights program named WordSmith, currently develops sports and financial pieces for a few small outlets of which you may have heard – the Associated Press and Yahoo!.
With an ear for a good story, NPR decided to put WordSmith to the test and pit the computer program against a highly credentialed veteran reporter. The result can only be described as kind of eerie. Man and machine were given the same earnings report at roughly the same time. The journalist analyzed the information and developed a solid 121-word piece in a zippy, seven-plus minutes. And the computer? It delivered an accurate and straight forward piece incorporating creditable outside information in just two minutes.
Now, a comparison of the stories shows that most people would prefer the seven minute version. It’s punny, more engaging and provides stronger context for the financial results and implications for the future. Still, in a society where time is the most valued commodity and cost efficiencies are the ultimate quest, one can see how this program could have serious implications for the field of journalism.
But what does this mean for public relations? Maybe sending a press release to an agreeable computer program versus a surly journalist would be a welcome change? (Though, let’s not forget HAL started out as a seemingly agreeable computer program in 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Perhaps acknowledging this technology is here and that it works will serve as an impetus for practitioners to step up, to create more authentic and compelling content or run the risk of being replaced by a machine. Sometimes, there is a tendency to template or create plug-and-play processes for the sake of efficiency. Straight-forward and uninteresting press releases created because, “It’s just another earnings report/award/executive appointment.” Empty pitches developed in Mad Lib-style so they can be re-used for the next effort. Bylines that are accurate, grammatically correct, but… so… boring.
I think we have to recognize the reality that if we systemize a process (even a writing process) for ourselves or our team, the programmers will be close behind automating our entire job. However, if each writing assignment and task is tackled at a human level, incorporating creativity and a deep understanding for the intended audience, we may have a leg-up against the machines. What’s more, we’ll be adding real value to our work, our organization and even our field.
So for now, my strategy is to accentuate my positive human attributes in all aspects of my job in hopes I’ll keep the programmers at bay. But for the record: If I do find myself one day working for WordSmith, much like Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings, who ultimately lost to the machine – I for one, welcome our new computer overlords.
Rachel Wingard is an account supervisor at Cookerly PR.