The SXSW conference is taking place in Austin right now, and there was a last minute substitution. Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales showed up to talk about the future of all things. Guy Kawasaki, one of my favorite entrepreneurs, interviewed him. He had some amazing things to say.
One of them was deeply troubling to me.
It also made me think of the iPhone coming out in a few weeks. And, it made me think of the Hyperloop. And, also, the debate about encryption happening in the world today. It's not because Jimmy Wales said anything about that, but he did say that robots would be writing articles like this eventually. He also said robots will be writing encyclopedia entries...soon. (He made such a long pause, it made me wonder if robots already are writing the entries, and that they probably are.)
What does that have to do with the iPhone, the Hyperloop, or anything else? Nothing at all, but a robot knows that, if I mention those things, the Google search algorithms will go nuts. You'll notice I (or was it the robot?) didn't add any hyperlinks to those things. No one wants to be too obvious here, although a robot AI might be tricking you into thinking it's not a big deal. I'm personally against "sponsored content" that is written for advertisers under the guise of journalism, but if you think links were a little obvious before, wait until a robot writer gets ahold of them.
By the way, I know there was some news about a robot doing stories for the AP a while ago. The company behind that, Automated Insights, announced they would be doing more detailed stories. You can train a robot to drive a car or vacuum your floor, why not create a news story? Or a column like this? Or even create an entire site dedicated to the business world.
First off, how would a robot write encyclopedia entries? Let's be honest here--better than any of the current Wikipedia writers, who use a vaguely robotic style anyway. Robots can be taught basic grammar, sure. More importantly, they can research for hours on end, link to other stories, verify sources, and add images faster and more efficiently than any human. It reminds me of a robotic car that can scan all around you looking for other cars without getting tired.
It's a total sham, though. Let's get right to the point. A robot will never write compelling articles. Never. The reason is that there is always a human behind every robotic act. A robot does not wake up from a dream sleep and write like Jonathan Franzen. It won't ever happen. A good writer like Franzen communicates from deep place of experience, understanding, and emotion. It is one soul connecting to another. You can generate news copy with a robot. You can even have a robot give you impressions -- based on sensors, and audio transcripts, and images -- of what the Jimmy Wales panel was like, the colors and tones. But never the feeling. Never.
The reason is that writing communicates a deeply personal human sentiment. I experienced the panel with a long set of personal viewpoints about Donald Trump (who was mentioned several times) and have views about the accuracy of an online encyclopedia and the color of the couches. Robots can analyze all of those things, but a robot will never be human. A robot can never experience birth, or the loss of a loved one, or the glance of a girl in the middle school lunch line. Try to program all of those things in 2050 or even long after, but a robot will never be me.
Note: This entire article was written by a robot. I'm kidding.