“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”
Stirring, poetic prose. Especially from a robot.
Science fiction gives us many examples, like this one from Blade Runner, of computers and artificial life forms expressing themselves in terms that humans would be proud of.
What about science fact? Well, we all know that Zooey Deschanel, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Malkovich are able to hold fruitful (or, in the last case, creepy) conversations with Siri, but they are a little one-sided, and there are doubts about how accurate the depictions are.
Narrative Science takes things a step further. As this recent article in Wired recounts, Narrative Science trains computers to write stories—and not just any stories, Kristian Hammond, one of the company’s founders, believes his computers are capable of writing a Pulitzer prize-winning story within five years.
I don’t want to re-tread too much of the Wired article, as you can read the article itself for details (and I recommend that you do!), but one section stood out to me:
As the computers get more accomplished and have access to more and more data, their limitations as storytellers will fall away. It might take a while, but eventually even a story like this one could be produced without, well, me. “Humans are unbelievably rich and complex, but they are machines,” Hammond says. “In 20 years, there will be no area in which Narrative Science doesn’t write stories.”
Now, I don’t know much at all about algorithms, but I do know how to recognize a metaphysical belief presented as fact when I see one—in this case, that human beings are “machines,” no more than the sum of their parts.
If that is the case, then yes, there is nothing that a human can do that can’t be replicated; with enough processing power, the correct parameters, and the right math to connect those parameters, a computer—or an android—can do anything we can do, and better. Our friend Roy from Blade Runner would be a Replican, not a Replican’t.
But the idea that human beings are no more than the sum of their parts is not a given. Philosophers have been wrestling for millennia over the question of whether humans are just the sum or more than the sum of their parts. The question is of supervenience—do the lower-level properties of a system determine its higher-level properties?
In this context, the question is “Does the storytelling capacity of human beings supervene on our neural pathways, our knowledge of the rules of composition, and the amount of data we have access to?”
Narrative Science is not alone in thinking that it does. Epagogix uses an algorithm to predict box office takings of proposed movies, crunching numbers on elements including the script and plot. If even creative pieces like film scripts can be coded into their component parts, then case study writers in particular had better watch out—as they are tasked more and more with dealing in data (hard metrics as opposed to soft benefits to the individual).
However, I would argue that there is more at work in a great script, case study, or any piece of writing that conveys a story—that they are more than the sum of their parts. There is something irreducible about them. When it comes to case studies, the key is that they are records of testimonials—one human being telling another human being about how a product, service, event, or solution impacted his or her life. Metrics, and other definable parts like quotes and proof points, will undoubtedly feature strongly in the story, and the text should adhere to the rules of composition and to brand and legal requirements. But a great case study will also have more than that: an intangible—the feel of a true human connection.
Computers might be trained to mimic that, but if we are more than the sum of our parts, they can’t actually experience it, and that will ultimately be apparent.
Or will it…? Was this blog post actually written by a computer?!
Let me know what you think, either in the comments or via twitter.