Can computers replace writers?
Over the years, many a mother, you can be sure, has quietly despaired upon being told by her teenager that a life as a writer was the chosen ambition.
No doubt many of these mothers dutifully (if doubtfully) encouraged their offspring and consoled themselves by concluding, "Well, dear, at least writers will never be replaced by computers."
Alas, it turns out, mother was wrong. These days there are several programs that, for one purpose or another, function solely to produce text without the involvement of writers.
These programs range from charming to practical to fiendish, but all serve to illustrate brutally that in web-dependent areas of art and commerce, human beings are no longer necessary.
On the charming side of the equation sits JanusNode, a free "user-configurable dynamic textual projective surface" designed by Chris Westbury, a cognitive neuropsychologist in the Department of Psychology at the University of Alberta, Canada.
JanusNode is, in effect, a poetry generator - whack in a pile of prose, or a web address, press go, and the program will fashion the contents into a quirky, modernist auto-poem.
Delightfully, it comes packaged with a button that permits the user to fashion the result in the style of defiantly lower-case late American poet e.e. cummings.
Poetry generators, per se, are common, but what sets JanusNode apart is that it is programmable by the user. Westbury's highly entertaining instructions explain how to construct code commands - called TextDNA - that govern how, and how often, words, classes of words and verse structures are employed.
Basically, JanusNode lets you make any style of poetry you desire - without having to write a single stanza.
"The interesting thing about JanusNode, and other simple means of generating random text, is how often they actually manage to strike a nerve; how often we actually find ourselves reading the words and thinking 'That's true!' or 'That's elegant!"' Westbury writes. As a demonstration, he has just published the first book created entirely by his software. It is called You can bring an elephant to a Broadway show, but you cannot make it drink Chablis.
JanusNode is all fun, but another text generator, Quill, is all business - so much so that it provides regular contributions to leading US business journalism website Forbes.
Developed by Chicago company Narrative Science, Quill is extraordinary, and renders business analysts pretty much redundant. The idea behind the program is simple: it receives numerical data - spreadsheets, market read-outs, the massive collections of figures that human analysts require days to sift through. Output - a second after the appropriate button is pushed - is a chosen suite of text documents: client summaries, broker summaries, blog posts, even Twitter announcements. All can be updated hourly, daily or weekly.
Quill - which grew from a university project geared to auto-generating baseball game reports - is used widely in the US in finance, banking and the stock market. Its output, as published in Forbes, is discernibly dry, as befits the genre, but without prior knowledge it seems indistinguishable from human-written text. Witness: "Over the past month, the consensus estimate has risen from 40 cents, but it's below the estimate of 54 cents from three months ago. Analysts are projecting earnings of $2.87 per share for the fiscal year."
In June this year, Narrative Science entered into a joint venture with In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the US intelligence community, to develop a new version of the program. This leads to the rather disturbing conclusion that soon the intelligence reports upon which the US relies when making decisions about, you know, what country to invade or who to target in a drone strike, will be constructed without human influence.
Quill produces highly readable text, but the most common types of text auto-generating programs churn out stuff most people would recognise immediately as gobbledegook. That doesn't matter, though. Known generically as "web scrapers", they're not out to fool humans, only search engines.
"A scraper is basically a bot that will run across the internet and, based on what it's programmed to do, it will find websites and scrape content from them," says Phil Dean, of online marketing consultancy Marmoset.
The bot will recombine snippets of keyword-linked text into thematic word salads and post it on its owner's site.
The idea is to fool Google's search algorithm into believing the result is a human-generated piece of content, thus pushing the site up the search-engine rankings and thereby increasing traffic and revenue.
For a professional online optimiser such as Dean, scraper-made websites are a constant annoyance. "In the past, the scraper approach has worked quite well," he says.
"Google has recently cracked down on auto-generated sites, but the story is that people always try to get around the new restrictions, then Google reacts again, and so on.
"But it is getting harder to have success with a site that is completely generated from scratch with no human intervention."
Google's successful crackdown on auto-generated scraper sites has the potential to adversely affect "legitimate" self-writing sites that rely on business applications, such as Quill, or even fun programs, such as JanusNode. It's a curious point at which to arrive: many different software sets arguing among themselves about what constitutes "real" writing.
All human writers can do is sit back and watch. Mother would be grimly disappointed.
And so it is written
The following "poem" was generated using this story's first paragraph and the JanusNode app, in e.e. cummings style.
Over the years m
you can be sure, has quietly despa
ing told by
that a life as a
was the chosen ambition.