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Executive Director’s Message: Of Monkeys and Machines

Michael Spinella, Executive Director of TAA
Michael Spinella, TAA’s Executive Director

Of Monkeys and Machines
The ‘Infinite Monkey Theorem’ is the notion that if a monkey were to type random letters on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time, it would eventually create the works of Shakespeare. Presumably, along the way, the fellow would have also composed more mundane pieces, like sports stories, and, umm, textbooks. Maybe, you say, but how long must we wait, and how much random nonsense must we wade through to find the good stuff?

Now a story in the New York Times Opinion Pages (March 7 online, March 8 in print) suggests that the monkey is already hard at work, has an infinite supply of (metaphorical) typewriter ribbon, and may not be required to produce as much randomness as we thought. The ‘monkey’, in this case, is a genre of computer algorithms that can generate human-like prose from data input around a certain topic. One program – Wordsmith from a company called Automated Insight – is already being used by the Associated Press to churn out financial reports at a rate of 3,000 per quarter.

Closer to home for TAA members, there is an algorithm patented by Philip M. Parker, a Management Science Professor at the French Business School INSEAD, to write books on technical subjects. Purportedly, his program has generated 1 million books, 100,000 of which are available for purchase on Amazon. “Oo-oo” comes to mind as I scratch my head and eat my banana…

While I’m skeptical that a computer can replicate the amazing originality, insight, or beauty of writing that sometimes flows from a human mind, we need to ponder the ramifications of writing bots beginning to take over some writing work. Questions to consider: What is truly unique about your own work? Do you believe computers can perform such a quintessentially human activity? Will they improve over time to take over even more authorial functions?

If you have some thoughts on this subject and would like to contribute to the conversation, I encourage you to visit TAA’s Member Community and join in the discussion.