Will artificial intelligence render content writers obsolete?

A study released earlier this month by market research firm Forrester predicted that automation (robots) will kill 24.7 million U.S. jobs by 2027. The firm also concluded that 14.9 million new jobs will be created in that same time frame as a result of automation and other developing technologies; placing net job losses at 9.8%. Customer service, manual labor and complex calculation tasks are cited as the most at-risk.

Writing would seemingly be the last jobs robots could take over because of so-called “human exceptionalism.” Emotional nuances, cognizance and other human faculties associated with crafting words that resonate with people, are ostensibly unique to homo sapiens. “Star Wars” fans remember when Luke Skywalker first met C3PO. Luke asked his new droid to talk about some of the battles he’s seen between the Rebellion and the Empire. But because C3PO was programmed only to be a language interpreter, he did not have the functional capacity to tell a story.

There are already robots writing certain types of copy, and the practice is growing in scope. Daryl Plummer, managing vice president and chief researcher at Gartner, said at the company’s Symposium/ITxpo 2016 in Orlando that robots will author 20% of business content by 2018. Budget reports and quick recaps of sporting events are currently the most common types of content written by artificial intelligence (AI).

In the old days (meaning a few years ago), financial writers combed through reports that companies are required to file with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC): 10-K, 10-Q, annual and quarterly earnings. Some 10-K and 10-Q reports for large companies easily exceed 100 pages of headache-inducing cryptic blather. Weeks and sometimes months later, after making sense of it all, writers crafted stories about the reports that readers could understand.

The Associated Press (AP) reported in January of 2015 that it previously could only write about 300 articles per quarter about individual company’s corporate earnings because the task was so tedious. But in late 2014 the AP formed partnerships with Automated Insights, Inc. and Zacks Investment Research. Automated’s natural language generation platform called Wordsmith, combined with Zacks’ research and analytics, enabled the AP to published 3,000 such articles in one quarter, a ten-fold increase in production.

Automated Insights was purchased by venture capital firm Vista Equity Partners, which owns Stats LLC., in early 2015. Fantasy sports players recognize the name Stats LLC. as one of the industry leaders in providing real-time scoring for their leagues. The partnership has just started scratching the surface as to the types of sports-related content it will produce with Stats’ huge vault of sports data and Insights’ AI technology.

Scientists at the International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) in Hyderabad, India, also married sports and AI in late 2015. A robot “watched” hundreds of taped cricket matches on the ESPNcricinfo website and the Indian Premiere League channel on Youtube. It learned what words were associated with the corresponding actions and players on the screen based on the commentary from the announcers. The computer then taught itself an algorithm that allowed it to write its own real-time commentary during live games with 90% accuracy. Robots have also tried their hand at writing movie scripts, but the end results didn’t exactly impress the folks at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Top writers in the content marketing industry are perpetually adapting to the ever-changing landscape of SEO and content production. It comes with the territory for those who wish to remain in the industry.

The expansion of AI in content marketing is simply another challenge writers must accept.

Sports and financial writers’ jobs at risk?

Robots have the ability to look at NBA, NFL and NHL box scores and write intelligible summaries as to what happened in the game. Companies like Fox Sports and Yahoo have been generating this type of content with AI for several years now. Similarly Chicago-based Narrative Science is leasing its natural language generation platform called Quill to financial firms like Credit Suisse and T. Rowe Price to write performance reports on mutual funds, hedge funds, and stocks.

The days of sports writers sitting in press boxes, collecting stat sheets from team personnel and writing recaps after games are likely numbered because of AI. But robot commentators won’t be doing play-by-play for fast-paced sports like basketball, football and ice hockey anytime soon. Opinion journalism has become the norm in professional and amateur sports (and cable news), which gives writer an edge over machines.

Sports and financial writers have adapted to this reality not only for the sake of job security, but also for competitive reasons since everyone else is doing it. Financial writers tend to let the numbers speak for themselves in their content. But in the fast-paced 21st century, a human touch is essential to lessens the chance of jobs being overtaken by machines and to distinguish yourself from the crowd.

AI isn’t cheap

Automation is on many companies’ wish lists because of its potential to streamline workflows and significantly reduce the time it takes to complete certain tasks. The reality is that AI is cost prohibitive for most businesses.

The legal industry is particularly bullish on AI for its potential money and time saving capabilities. But Connie Brenton, chairman of the board at the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium, told law publication Corporate Counsel in February that AI is not a “silver bullet” that is going to disrupt the legal profession overnight. Brenton elaborated at Legalweek: The Experience 2017 Conference. She said that beyond the initial costs that can potentially exceed six-figures, there is also a 5-6 month time investment before virtual assistants can actually be implemented into legal workflows. Firms would also need to hire multiple full-time administrators for the system and frequently consult with the AI vendor.

Seth Earley, CEO of Earley Information Science, agreed that cost and time investment eliminate AI as an option for most companies in the near term. Earley suggested in his Harvard Business Review article that the more realistic option for small and medium-sized companies that lack huge corporate budgets is what he termed “AI Lite” systems. These more simplified virtual helpers lack cognitive computing ability, and are programmed to complete only certain tasks. These systems would require additional coding to learn new tasks, but would provide a scalable AI foundation for companies as the technology becomes more affordable and accessible.

Breathe easy, writers

Financial writers had job security because relatively few people in the world can make enough sense of economic regulations, indexes and statistics to compose good stories. AI has already impacted that segment of writers. The journalistic aspect of financial writing, however, is still a human activity. Interviews with industry experts, CEOs, etc. still produce quotes that provide readers perspective. Human journalists already experience difficulty contacting sources on the phone and/or via email to get direct quotes. Its doubtful CEOs and market analysts would be more willingly to talk to robots on the phone or via email versus responding to another human being.

AI is everywhere in 2017. Whether humanity likes it or not, the trend is not slowing down. Robots are now driving people’s cars for them, but 75% of Americans and a majority of Europeans are scared of autonomous technology and would rather drive themselves. An Indiegogo virtual sex robot campaign had to be suspended because demand was so high. But most (normal) people still favor sex with another human as opposed to robots.

An experiment carried out in the 1940s before the United States had medical ethics also proved human touch is vital to human life. One group of caretakers was ordered to hold, look at, talk to, etc. a group of babies they would also feed, change diapers, etc. The other group only changed diapers, fed, etc. the babies while excluding all other physical contact, communication, etc. The experiment had to be stopped after four months because four of the babies that received no human contact died, and two more died months later even when given real parental care thereafter.

AI is presenting writers the opportunity to better themselves; to become subject matter experts in more industries and acquire new skills like graphic design, web design and/or SEO. Writing is innately a human form of communication that requires humans to craft and subsequently appreciate. Professional writers know the basics: always cite primary sources, use keywords in headlines, hit deadlines, etc. But most importantly in 2017, give your writing that human touch that only we as humans understand and appreciate.

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