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The great mechanical takeover – and why I couldn’t care less about robot writers

Who’d a thunk it? The end of the world (for writers) won’t look like your run-of-the-mill apocalypse; there’ll be no catastrophic environmental disaster, nor will there be issues with food shortages, pandemics, the threat of war… oh. Hold up. Let’s start again, in a manner suitable for a 2022 audience.

Who’d a thunk it? Although we’re collecting deadly potentially world-ending scenarios like Pokémon cards in the late 90s, the end of the world for writers is impending – apparently. Although, I must admit: I’m not worried, and I’ll tell you why.

We’ve probably all heard about the rather sombre predictions for how robots (I’m using a very broad definition here, encompassing computer programs) have the potential for causing major shifts in the workforces of the future. Yes, this is a polite way of saying, ‘the robots are coming for your job’. You need only look to your local McDonald’s, where you probably ordered most recently from a machine (you know, those touchscreen order points). It’s OK, the chrome fast food overlords will only remember that time you ordered yourself 3 cheeseburgers and 2 boxes of cheese dippers for the next 100,000,000 years. But we’re not here to talk about Robochef 3000.

INTRODUCING: ROBOT WRITERS.

That’s right: as it turns out, robotic writers already exist – in the sense that there are programs out there (already in use!) that can write copy for various purposes.1 It’s probably easy to imagine, then, that Med Comms is next on the list for the great assimilation (or whatever the machines will call the end of humans in the far future). If those order points from Maccies are in the robot army, does anyone else hope that they’ll call the machine-human war, ‘Order 66’? (No? No Star Wars fans out there?)

As I said, I’m not worried. Do I think a machine could do my job? Actually, yes. Do I think a machine could be a better writer than me? Yes, again. But here’s the problem: a machine won’t make mistakes. It’ll produce copy so flawless that it never needs edits. Here, I think, lies its central flaw. Oh, the irony.

Remove the ability to receive feedback, get pointers, be exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking, constantly be in a state of learning and improving, and so on, and I’d say our future metallic Med Comms masters can go ahead and pop themselves in power-saving mode – ‘cos they aint gonna be going anywhere fast. And they may as well be kind to the environment while in their stupor.

OK, OK, I hear you: we could just tweak the parameters of the program, so that it DOES make errors; or, we could design the program to continually improve and evolve, perhaps scanning the work of human (or machine) copywriters and stealing sequences and tendencies to use particular strings of words – like some kind of weird cyborg parrot. Just imagine if Polly could memorise the entire internet, reciting every known text that has ever existed. Well, yeah, the robot writers will be able to do that. Surely, we’re doomed, then?

Nope. I don’t think so. Because here’s another thing: every single writer is different. They have various backgrounds, specialities, knowledge bases, preferences, and so on. I simply don’t believe that this level of complexity could be captured – in a useful way – within a writing program. Add on top of this the multi-level complexity of receiving feedback, and acting on feedback, sent over by other writers, who themselves carry their own set of unique variations that are partially formed by feedback from other sources (a thought experiment we could repeat ad infinitum), and I’m pretty sure we’ve got quite an unwieldly computer system. In fact, to capture this complexity, you’re probably better off just building a human (but there’s a convenient shortcut, actually: you can hire pre-existing humans. Third time lucky: who’d a thunk it?).

So, rest easy, fellow writers. I reckon we’re safe from the robo-revolution. For now. Wouldn’t it be great if I ended this article by saying, ‘a writing program wrote this’? Well, I won’t.

I’ve just had an awful thought, though – what if I am an advanced writing program of the future? Maybe I imagined a fictitious life outside of the thing I was programmed to do, framing my writing so that my copy drive can continue to function optimally?

Oh, no.

SYSTEM ERROR. 404: BRAIN NOT FOUND.

Reference
  1. ProWritingAid. Will AI Replace Your Writing Job? Available at: https://prowritingaid.com/art/937/writing-jobs-that-wouldn-t-be-replaced-by-ai.aspx. Accessed May 2022.