Are You in Danger of Becoming Obsolete at Work?

October 12th, 2006 by Bob Bly

Two key factors can threaten your future job security:

1. Your job can be outsourced to India (e.g., programming, call centers).

2. Your job can be done by a computer or other machine.

Journalism hasn’t made a top 10 list of “hot careers” for years.

And now reason #2 above puts journalists in even greater danger of becoming obsolete.

My friend and fellow copywriter TNT sent me an article reporting That Thomson Financial, a large publisher, is using automatic computer programs instead of human journalists to write news stories.

The robot reporter can process the market data in fianncial reports and file a round-up article, written in plain English sentences, in 0.3 seconds.

In the good old days, it took me 10 times longer — 3 seconds — just to take the cover off my trusty IBM Selectric!

No human reporter can write a financial article as quickly as the robot.

But can we do it better?

One person quoted in the article says yes, pointing out that a computer can’t pick up the nuances and interpret the financial data as well as a skilled financial writer can.

But does that mean financial journalists can give a big sigh of relief and assume their jobs are safe forever?

Or is it merely a matter of time before programmers improve software to the point that writers are obsolete?

Think it can’t happen?

Ask Garry Kasparov some time about how much money he’d make winning chess tournaments if IBM’s Big Blue were allowed to compete for money.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, October 12th, 2006 at 11:18 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

35 responses about “Are You in Danger of Becoming Obsolete at Work?”

  1. Howard McEwen said:

    If the reports are that easy to write, then let a computer do it. It’ll free up all those wonderful minds for something more challenging.

    However, I don’t see it. When I was younger, DJ-less programmed radio tried to take over a few stations. The problem is that people want a human touch and personality.

    A computer or robot can build a car, but not conceive and design a car that people want…at least not yet…

  2. Bob Bly said:

    Howard: I agree. For instance, today I wrote a direct mail letter for a client. I can’t tell you how much I agonized over just which words to underline in the letter — forget all the rest! No program can duplicate an experienced copywriter’s decision-making process when it comes to subtle nuances like that.

  3. Sean Woodruff said:

    Ok, time for my philosophical hat.

    A computer can never use words to connect the spirit that runs through all of us. A good writer understands the correct words that connect at a deeper level. The inanimate can never connect because the inanimate is, well, inanimate.

    Hat off. If I’ve communicated this idea you will instinctively feel that it is correct.

  4. Craig Hysell said:

    I agree completely with what Sean said. I have never heard of a computer that has been inspired by anything at all. It is a series of manmade parts that bases itself in the factuality of numbers not the ruminations of ideas and dreams.
    Which is why it can compute chess moves and “write” a financial report.

    I wonder if a computer could capture what it “feels” like to watch the sun set in the ocean instead of simply describing the view?

  5. Michel Fortin said:

    I believe in what Naisbitt wrote. My interpretation, and view, are these:

    In his bestselling book “Mega Trends,” and his follow-up book based on that single trend, “High Tech, High Touch,” Naisbitt points out that the more roboticised we become, the more we will crave and seek out human interaction.

    We are social animals, after all.

    When the Internet and ecommerce first appeared on the scene, pundits proclaimed the end of the shopping mall. Numbers show that while sales may go up and down based on the economy, and the introduction of new distribution channels based on technology, malls are now busier than ever.

    Particularly busier are stores that create an experience, rather than just “take a number” merchandising. (Take for example Wal-Mart, with its greeters, restaurants and indoor playgrounds, versus the fall of in-store, catalogue-based Consumers Distributing, which collapsed most likely in the wake of the Internet’s boom.)

    Arguably, technology does have a place and provides convenience, speed and cost-efficiency. But if it starts taking the human element out of the equation, either it will bust in the long term, or new modes of human interaction (or imbuing more “human-ness” into such processes) will popularise over time.

    Another way to look at it is, for instance, the more the act of “writing” becomes mechanical and computerised, the more popular, valuable, creative and personable human forms of writing will become.

    (And the more popular other forms of communication, namely those that cannot be roboticised, will become as well. Take, for instance, the growth in reality TV, infomercials that look like newsshows, the self-help movement, the growth in online video such as the recent GoogTube wedding, etc.)

  6. Don Marti said:

    You can’t really lump in all programming as offshorable. It depends on if you’re doing a small part of a highly structured project, or something creative with lots of contact with the end user. Good article: Offshore Risk Factor.

  7. Bob Bly said:

    Don: Of course not. I didn’t go into detail because my post was about computerized writing, not programming. I should point out that, as a rule, lower-level coding can be easily outsourced overseas, while more collaborative, strategic, and high-level IT work cannot.

  8. Mordechai (Morty) Schiller said:

    Bob: Woody Allen had a routine about how his father was fired because the company got an electrical circuit that did the same job as his… only better. The really sad thing was that his mother went out and bought one!

    I seem to remember you once had a great spoof on spellchecking in your newsletter. It demonstrated how relying on technology to think for us leads to disasters. A reviewer in Writer’s Digest of a then-new product that checked grammar (before word processors had that option… I have mine shut off!) said, “If a computer can improve my writing… I deserve it!”

    The same thing goes for a miscreation like White Smoke that claims to automatically improve your writing. (Check out a review at http://tinyurl.com/y38e9t)

    Chess is science, not art. A computer can play chess, but neither a computer, nor a million monkeys can write Hamlet. That’s part of why blogs are so popular. No, they are not Shakespeare. But they have more of a human sound than the marketing speak of corporate websites or collateral material.

    For that matter, computers have yet to replace even technical writers. It takes a human connection (not interface!) to understand what the reader needs to know.

    And yes, we still need your books too, Bob. Even if you don’t!

  9. Michael A. Stelzner said:

    Bob – A major publisher in San Diego decided to outsource book editing to a company in India. It turned out to be a disaster and they brought it back to the U.S.

    I think skilled writers will do well, regardless of where they are physically located.

    My take it this. There are a lot of crappy writers in the U.S. They better refine their craft or become a Wal-Mart greeter.

    Mike

  10. Shamus Choy said:

    Hi everybody. I’m new here. This is the first comment that I’m posting. Hope I make sense.

    I don’t think it’s that easy for computers to replace people in writing, in fact, not even for any other editorial work. I perform translation from the English Language to the Chinese Language, and vice versa, and I understand that translation software simply cannot replace translators made of flesh and blood (well, among many other things). I’m not saying translation is easier than journalistic writing, but at least original contents are available for the translator to tell the same story in another language. Yet, that has proven tough for machines. I don’t know of the differences between English and French or German or Spanish, but I know that English and Chinese are worlds apart in many ways. With all the complex and multi-layered nuances in different languages, Software today simply cannot do it right by themselves. That’s why translation editors are still required. For journalists, they have to write fresh stories instead of telling one that’s already been told. I don’t see how machines can be smart enough to do that, not at least during my lifetime. They can generate reports based on templates, I’m sure, but not producing intriguing and engaging stories that will captivate you and me.

  11. Dianna Huff said:

    A couple of years ago a company contacted me about promoting their their software to my customers. The product “wrote” marketing materials for B2B companies. The user simply had to type in the product name, the product, etc and the software did the rest. Of course, I declined.

    Afterward I laughed about it — how can software write an ad? — but then realized that this type of scenario is closer than we all know. The fact that most B2B copy out there sounds the same means it is very easy for a “bot” to write it.

    Did you see David Scott’s recent blog post about marketing gobbledygook?

  12. Rob Swanson said:

    I recall an ad waaaay back when PC’s first came on the scene. Mistaking the tool for the skill, the ad claimed you’d never need to hire a writer again because the computer made writing so easy….

    #2 would be an opportunity, not a detriment. Let the computer take the first cut; it still requires a pro to make it readable and to connect with the reader.

  13. Frank Catalano said:

    I think computers have a place in helping “stack” news and filter it, but not create written text. There are very sophisticated algorithms today using a mathematical approach called Latent Semantic Analysis that can glean the meaning of text based on the relationship of words. But even the best program can’t write a very good newspaper article. Filtering and creating are two different kinds of skills.

    Think Google News, and that’s not the most sophisticated filter out there, though it does a pretty good job.

    I wrote a piece for Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact back in 1992 called “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Airwaves” that speculated, among other things, about advanced computers being able to act as smart filters for broadcast news. (It’s archived at http://bytemeonline.blogspot.com/dinosruled.html). But good writing touches emotions, and I haven’t yet seen any computer software sophisticated enough to do that with the written word.

  14. Jonathan Kantor said:

    Hey maybe having robots as journalists isn’t a bad thing after all.

    It certainly would be one way to solve the overwhelming bias that we see in the media when the AP refers to Congressman Patrick Kennedy (Sen. Ted Kennedy’s son) as the nephew of the late President Kennedy, after the news of his drunk driving episode.

    After all, the last example of a robot with emotion was DATA from Star Trek – The Next Generation.

  15. Mordechai (Morty) Schiller said:

    Can a computer write?

    Bob Bly recently wrote about computers and writers. I commented there about a poem on spell checkers. It’s been around the Net for years. In case you missed it, here it is…

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