Automation Frees Us to Be Human

Read parts one and two of our SXSW series. 

My father will tell you that I saw automation coming as an undergrad in the early 2000s as I left journalism school. I argued that stories are formulaic—especially sports stories (I wanted to write for Sports Illustrated)—and it wouldn’t take long for someone to build a computer to write them instead. The Internet was a nascent thing back then. If Excel can do the math for you, one day it, or something like it, will do the same to news stories. Especially sports stories.

The arguments of automating lawyers out of a job today aren’t much different. Good bet we can all be automated out of a job, and all decisions made based on algorithms. We automate many things already, from setting the DVR to having Amazon send us groceries we consume on a regular basis. Automation for convenience is one thing, a thing we welcome. Automating job functions, aspects that define our identity, creates tension and backlash as it is seen as a threat.

The question, then,  “When Robots Write the News, What Will Humans Do?” is a good one.

The session was a Q&A with Lou Ferrara, a vice president and managing editor at the Associated Press, and Robbie Allen, the CEO of Automated Insights. Automated Insights makes a platform called Wordsmith, a patented engine that “turns big data into narrative reports by spotting patterns, correlations, and key insights in the data and then describing them in plain English, just like a human would.” In other words, it’s an application that you feed data to and it spits out prose. It’s the human brain of a journalist without reason, logic, or distraction.

The AP implemented Wordsmith for earnings reports, produced quarterly by publicly traded companies. In the United States, by way of example, there are roughly 4,000 publicly traded companies. That is 4,000 earnings reports to comb through every three months, and it is a formulaic, process-driven exercise. Journalists basically pull numbers from the press release, plug them into an outline, write a headline, and publish. These recaps must be done quickly, too, as traders often rely on them when making decision on whether to buy or sell. Accuracy, then, too, is key.

With 4,000 earnings reports released each quarter, in just the United States, the AP staff only produced 300 recaps. Take a minute and do the math: 4,000 earnings reports, and 300 recaps, each quarter. That leaves a large chunk of information unreported, not to mention a large chunk of data un-examined, if not ignored. To Ferrara, earnings recaps were ripe for automation.

The shiver in the room at the mention of “automation” was palpable. It has become a trigger word. Everyone, from journalists to lawyers to taxi drivers, lives in fear of being automated out of a job. Ferrara addressed this directly, stating that eliminating jobs was never a goal, pointing out (to some laughs) that the market was doing that already. For him, the goal of automation was to free up staff time, and exploit human skills.

Human skills. Those little things lawyers do when a client is upset or stressed over a child custody hearing, losing a business that has been in the family for generations, or having to be present for the reading of a will of a departed loved one.

Humans skills. People skills. For all the talk of lawyers being automated out of a job, no one has mentioned automating empathy.

For the AP, Wordsmith helped them go from producing 300 earnings reports a quarter to 3,000, and freed up its staff to leverage those human skills to produce stories on sector analysis, and find those angles that, as Ferrara put it, aren’t necessarily data-driven.

While automation continues to make inroads into the legal profession, there is a lesson to be taken from the AP. Automation is not a threat, but an ally. It can remove much of the process-driven, repetitive tasks, freeing you up to provide that human touch we long for when going through a divorce, burying our loved ones, or experiencing what cannot be automated: emotion.

Automation, then, frees us to be human.

With that in mind, I set off to hear a lawyer talk on the arc of emerging technology, a CLE-accredited presentation. Yes, that is correct. There are CLE sessions at SXSW.

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