Can Bots Write Articles Yet?

By Eric Brantner on 9/13/16 1:41 PM

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Everyone who uses the internet has interacted with bots. Bots chat with us on apps, leave comments on articles and videos, and write social media posts. We know that bots have the ability to put words together coherently. But can bots write entire articles by themselves?

The simple answer is: Yes, but with limitations.

Bots are Already Writing Articles

You may actually have already read a news article written by a bot without realizing it. In 2014, the Associated Press implemented an automated system which can write articles entirely on its own. AP assigned its bot to cover the quarterly earnings of companies.

Company quarterly earnings are the perfect assignment for a computer, because they are usually simple and don’t require any creative syntax, but they do require precision. The AP used to only publish quarterly earnings for about 300 companies. Since they have been using a bot to do the work, the number of companies they report on has increased to 3,000.

The AP is not the only journalistic outlet using a Natural Language Generation program. The Los Angeles Times has a bot that writes breaking news about earthquakes. Wired even published an obituary for Marvin Minsky, the artificial intelligence pioneer, which was written by a bot.

A Swedish man named Sverker Johansson created a computer program to write Wikipedia articles. The bot has written a total of 2.7 million articles. That’s about 8.5 percent of the total articles on Wikipedia—more than any human has ever written.

Are Bots Going to Replace Journalists?

So with all these bots already writing articles, you’re probably wondering if journalists are going to be replaced by computers. The answer, for the time being, is no.

First of all, bots are not yet able to produce complex news stories. There are 10 companies for which the AP’s bot cannot write quarterly earnings reports, because the reports are just too nuanced for the computer to handle. These companies include CitiGroup and Wells Fargo.

The Atlantic recently published an article with the headline “A Computer Tried (and Failed) to Write This Article.” A long-form piece on the potential of artificial intelligence in journalism was just too complicated for a machine, and the sentences it produced were incomprehensible.

So bots have to stick to the basics, at least for now. And this is beneficial, not detrimental to human journalists. If a newspaper puts a bot in charge of writing simple, boring stories like quarterly earnings, box scores, and weather reports, the human journalists get to spend their time on more interesting, creative, and nuanced stories.

For example, while the AP’s bot wrote the basic story on Apple’s quarterly earnings, reporter Brandon Bailey was free to write a more complex story which put the company’s earnings in context and included quotes from Apple executives.

The current limitations of bots do not preclude the possibility of them replacing human journalists some time in the future. Artificial intelligence is always improving. When AP’s bot first began writing articles, every story was examined by an editor, who would correct and record errors in order to improve the program. Three months later, the AP started publishing the bot’s stories with no human intervention. Computers learn fast.

Can Bots be Used for Blogging?

So what can bots offer to the blogosphere? Can you (and should you) use bots to write your blog articles?

There are already some artificial intelligence writing platforms that are available for anyone to use. Automated Insights, the company that the AP works with, is now offering free trials of their software to anyone. Another similar option is Narrative Science.

Depending on the type of content you produce, bots may or may not work for your blog. Bots may be able to relieve you of a lot of grunt work, but they don’t yet have the creativity that humans have, and blogging usually requires creativity and flair. So, in most cases, bots aren’t a great option for those starting a blog. But if you have a lot of data like sports scores, weather, company data, etc. then machine learning and artificial intelligence may be a boon because they can create human-like reporting at scale. 

Then again, with the right amount of human input, computers are capable of producing almost anything. Japanese researchers recently produced a short novel that was written almost entirely by a computer. The researchers gave the computer the basic framework of the story, along with samples of words and phrases that they wanted it to use. The software then wrote the text. Google reportedly used romance novels to train its AI. 

Only time will tell whether computers will improve enough to replicate the creativity and sincerity of human bloggers. As far as I know, a bot has yet to produce a successful blog.

This article was, for the record, written by a human, not a bot (...or was it?).

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