Do You Want Your News Written And Personalized By Robots?

I find Narrative Science to be a fascinating company for a variety of reasons, and the more I read about them, the more fascinated I am. I really don’t know if what they’re doing is going ...
Do You Want Your News Written And Personalized By Robots?
Written by Chris Crum
  • I find Narrative Science to be a fascinating company for a variety of reasons, and the more I read about them, the more fascinated I am. I really don’t know if what they’re doing is going to change the future of news or not. I wouldn’t be surprised either way, but I have to hand it to them for coming up with some interesting concepts and philosophies.

    There’s certainly no shortage of confidence radiating from the company.

    If you’re not familiar with Narrative Science, we’ve written about them as a “robotic content farm” in the past. They provide articles that are written by machines rather than people. Real, readable articles (and they’re working on expanding into more languages).

    “We offer an innovative and cost-effective solution that allows publishers to cover topics that can’t otherwise be covered due to operational or cost constraints,” the company explains on its home page.

    Narrative Science isn’t a content farm in the traditional sense. They provide content to third-parties, and not just news content, but that does seem to be the core focus. Really, it’s more like a robotic Associated Press, though it has a ways to go to get to the quality of content you’ll get from the AP. But apparently, Narrative Science, still in the early days, is progressing to get much better at more human-like output.

    Wired recently ran a great article on the company, asking: Can an Algorithm write a better news story than a human reporter?

    If so, a lot of us may find ourselves looking for new professions one day soon.

    “Had Narrative Science — a company that trains computers to write news stories—created this piece, it probably would not mention that the company’s Chicago headquarters lie only a long baseball toss from the Tribune newspaper building,” Steven Levy, author of the Wired article, begins the piece. “Nor would it dwell on the fact that this potentially job-killing technology was incubated in part at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Those ironies are obvious to a human. But not to a computer. At least not yet.”

    The company claims to be getting better at understanding natural language, and that’s where things could get really interesting.

    CTO and co-founder Kris Hammond wrote a blog post about how Narrative Science can do personalization, and actually make the filter bubble less of a problem rather than a bigger problem.

    More on the filter bubble concept here.

    “If we were putting together a news-based web site and thinking only about how to customize it to present content based on a particular reader’s interests, I would have to agree… that amplifies the bubble,” Hammond writes (assuming it was really him writing it and not a robot). “But we are thinking on a different scale. We are thinking about the content itself and how it can be personalized and made relevant on the micro level rather than presenting content on the macro level. We are thinking about how content can be made relevant to an individual even when they might not be already inclined to ingest (or understand) that content in its more generic form.”

    He goes on to give the example of President Obama talking about gas prices in 2009, and things people can do to their cars to save gas, and ultimately save the country billions of dollars. He talks about the ridicule the ideas endured, but suggests that automatically-generated and personalized content like what Narrative Science could one day achieve, could have made the story more relevant to users on a very, very personalized level.

    “Imagine if the story had been focused on you, your car, your local gas prices and your driving habits,” writes Hammond. “For me that would be: given that I drive a 2002 Ford Escape, which gets around 16MPG, and I live in Chicago, where gas prices are at about $4.50, and I drive about 1000 miles a month… I could get a story that tells me that I could save about $20 dollars a month or $240 a year by making sure my tires were inflated while I gassed up my car.”

    “This one little piece of personalization changes my relationship with the news I am presented,” he adds. “It links it to my life and my concerns. It in no way reinforces a view I already have but opens up the door to understanding how an abstraction is relevant to my day-to-day existence.”

    And that’s where the filter bubble is burst, according to Hammond. He goes on to say that Narrative Science isn’t at this point yet, but that’s more due to a lack of available data than to the company’s technology.

    Either way, it’s a pretty interesting glimpse into the mentality Narrative Science is operating under.

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