Robot writing is not communication

September 14, 2011

A recent New York Times Sunday business column profiled the efforts of a startup that has developed software purporting to take data and automatically turn it into natural language articles that appear to be written by a real person. As someone who makes his living as a writer, naturally I am disturbed by the long-term implications.

Gastev / CC 2.0

The new technology is intended to be a way to present raw data in a way that is more understandable and consumable by humans, and thereby improve communication. However, it marks the top of a slippery slope. Technology has a nasty habit of changing how people think. It shapes our expectations and standards. Texting and tweeting is already requiring us to make sentences shorter and simpler. Attention spans are shrinking. It can be a challenge to express a complex thought. It would not surprise me if the line between automated content creation and actual human communication were to become too blurry to see – not because the robots will be that good, but because people will lose the ability to tell the difference. There’s a key difference between copy “written” by a machine and human thoughts expressed in words. Good writing is more than just information delivery. It can compel, elicit emotions and drive action. That’s a vitally important distinction for marketers. The purpose of the written word is to communicate an _idea_, not just information. Just as superior design takes research, thought and insight into what’s being expressed, effective written communication goes much deeper than canned thoughts assembled in grammatically correct order. Human expertise is – and will continue to be – an essential element.

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