Will Robo-Writers Put Humans Out of Work?

03/25/2015 02:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015

Answer: I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.
Question: What did Ken Jennings write in his response to Final Jeopardy!, knowing he had no hope of defeating Watson, IBM's artificially intelligent computer system, in a Jeopardy! tournament?

Jennings had already won millions as a game show contestant, so he could afford to joke about losing to a machine. But later in a TED talk, Jennings said, "I felt like 'Quiz Show Contestant' was now the first job that had become obsolete under this new regime of thinking computers."

Could those computers also put those of us who write for a living out of a job? I have worn different hats during my career -- journalist, corporate communicator, author -- but my core skill set has always been the ability to gather and synthesize information to create stories that are relevant to an audience. I never thought that I could lose my job to a machine, but computer algorithms are starting to replace fingers on keyboards.

The Associated Press uses Automated Insights' Wordsmith platform to create some 3,000 stories on company earnings reports every quarter. Narrative Science's Quill platform provides financial reports to Forbes and a number of Wall Street firms. It also churns out more than a million accounts of Little League games every year.

Data-driven topics like finance and sports are the sweet spot for these robo-journalists. They use algorithms and natural language generators to create articles which are virtually indistinguishable from those written by humans. Can you guess which of these story leads was written by a machine?

1. Optimism surrounds Costco Wholesale, as it gets ready to report its second quarter results on Thursday, March 5, 2015. Analysts are expecting the company to book a profit of $1.18 a share, up from $1.05 a year ago.

2. Thursday before the markets open, Costco Wholesale Corp. will report its fiscal second-quarter earnings. Thomson Reuters has consensus estimates of $1.18 in earnings per share (EPS) and $27.7 billion in revenue.

The first lead is from a Forbes article generated by the Narrative Science platform, while the second was written by a 24/7 Wall St. journalist.

The media outlets using robo-journalism claim it's not a job-killer, rather, it's freeing up reporters to write more analytical pieces while the algorithm bangs out the basics. These writing programs don't conduct interviews, so there would seem to still be some job security for journalists who actually gather information independently rather than simply process data that has been given to them.

But what about those of us who work in corporate communications? We speak for organizations, writing things like press releases, website copy, intranet articles, and executive emails and speeches. In many organizations, executives like to tightly control the messages sent to employees and the public. I would hate to see a future in which company leaders feed data and quotes to a robo-writer, rather than working with a communications expert who might question their thinking and press for more information.

The best way for both journalists and corporate communicators to keep their jobs is to do what computers can't. Seek out information that isn't easy to find. Badger people who would prefer not to talk to us. Challenge our bosses about what they want to say or aren't saying. Go beyond formulaic writing. If we just spew out the information someone gives us without analyzing and supplementing it, we deserve to let our computer overloads do the talking for us.