What CAN'T computers do?

Not too long ago, there was a relatively long list of things machines couldn’t do by themselves: play chess, read legal briefs, translate poetry, vacuum floors, drive cars, etc. But that list is getting shorter and shorter every year. The latest casualty may be writing newspaper articles.

Kris Hammond and Larry Birnbaum at Northwestern’s Intelligent Information Laboratoryhave started a company called Narrative Science which does just that. Here’s a sample, produced with 60 seconds of the end of the third quarter of a recent football game:

“WISCONSIN appears to be in the driver’s seat en route to a win, as it leads 51-10 after the third quarter. Wisconsin added to its lead when Russell Wilson found Jacob Pedersen for an eight-yard touchdown to make the score 44-3 … . ”

According to Steve Lohr, in the New York Times:

The Narrative Science software can make inferences based on the historical data it collects and the sequence and outcomes of past games. To generate story “angles,” explains Mr. Hammond of Narrative Science, the software learns concepts for articles like “individual effort,” “team effort,” “come from behind,” “back and forth,” “season high,” “player’s streak” and “rankings for team.” Then the software decides what element is most important for that game, and it becomes the lead of the article, he said. The data also determines vocabulary selection. A lopsided score may well be termed a “rout” rather than a “win.”

He ends his article with a prediction by Dr. Hammond:

“In five years,” he says, “a computer program will win a Pulitzer Prize — and I’ll be damned if it’s not our technology.”

That may be a bit ambitious, but one nearly-certain prediction is that computer power will increase by roughly 10-fold in the next five years, and by 100-fold within a decade.

You can also be sure that journalism won’t be the only job affected.

One Reply to “What CAN'T computers do?”

  1. Art has been a difficult area for AI, and journalism is just one of those areas where we humans will retain our edge for some time.

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