Automatic writing

The term “automatic writing” is usually associated with a particular psychic phenomenon. However, software now exists that can take data, such as sports results, and generate reports from it.

robot reporterWhat surprised me is that the reports are readable, and not obviously computer-generated. Take, for example, this extract of a report of a football game:

The Badgers scored 20 points in the first quarter on a Russell Wilson touchdown pass, a Montee Ball touchdown run and a James White touchdown run.

I have no idea what it all means, but it’s more reader-friendly than a table of results. That’s from a company called Narrative Science, as reported in Computer-generated journalism: A new kind of automatic writing.

Here’s another example, this time from a project called StatsMonkey, as reported in Automated Sports Reporters Coming This Summer:

An outstanding effort by Willie Argo carried the Illini to an 11-5 victory over the Nittany Lions on Saturday at Medlar Field.

Note that the report is not, as you might expect, as dry as dust. I know the inclusion of the word “outstanding” would not qualify it for the Pulitzer Prize, but you have to congratulate the programmers for making that possible.

So should sports journalists be quaking in their boots and scanning the job centre postings? I think not. This automated reporting is fine for crunching large amounts of data and making it palatable, but to make a report come alive still requires a human being.

I cannot, for instance, imagine a machine producing something like this:

[George] Best had come in along the goal line from the corner-flag in a blur of intricate deception. Having briskly embarrassed three or four challengers, he drove the ball high into the net with a fierce simplicity that made spectators wonder if the acuteness of the angle had been an optical illusion.

“What was the time of that goal?” asked a young reporter in the Manchester United press box. “Never mind the time, son,” said an older voice beside him. “Just write down the date.”


It was the kind of wind that seemed to peel the flesh off your bones and come back for the marrow.

Both of those quotes are from the pen of Hugh McIlvanney, as reported in Hugh McIlvanney remains the matchless Master.

The writer of that article, Norman Giller, tells us:

To watch McIlvanney at work is not a pretty sight. He carves slowly like Leonardo, chiselling out every word with care and consideration.

Somehow, I can’t see anyone describing a robot reporter in such terms!