Last summer, an NPR journalist raced against a computer program in a classic battle of man vs. machine.
The machine in question, an automated story generator called Wordsmith, is being used by a number of high-profile news outlets — including Associated Press and Yahoo!— to churn out dry financial reports. Wordsmith’s creative process is simple: it receives data in the form of graphs, tables, or charts, and then relates it to you in terse, straightforward language. Both Wordsmith and NPR correspondent Scott Horsely were given the same set of data — Dennys’ freshly released earnings statement — and told to write a brief radio story. Horsely, a Dennys regular and former business reporter, completed his story in seven minutes; his opponent finished in two.
Every now an then, these types of stories resurface: a world-ranked chess champion battles a supercomputer, a champion tennis player faces off against a high-speed robot, et cetera, et cetera. Part of what makes these stories so popular is that even when the robots win, the narrative ends with the same validating assertion: you just can’t beat a human touch. Wordsmith may have won the race, but the overwhelming majority of online voters agreed that Horsely’s story was the superior product — and it’s easy to see why. The tone is personable and engaging; the vocabulary colloquial and playful; the sentence structure varied and polished; overall it’s just a more pleasant read. The Wordsmith article, in contrast, is choppy, blunt, and — for lack of a better word — too robotic.
These types of triumphalist stories are so common, in fact, that one of the US’s oldest folk tales is the story of John Henry, a “steel drivin’” man who raced against a steam-powered drill — and won. But what makes John Henry such a compelling and long-lasting mythological figure is not that he defeats his opponent, but that the battle costs him his life. John Henry may have won the battle, but humanity lost the war; in winning the race, he killed the only living person on earth who could compete with it.
This story is particularly resonant because it is saturated in dramatic irony. We know what John Henry never lived to discover: that machines replaced railroad laborers long, long ago. Today, a tunnel carved deep through the heart of a mountain would never be created through human labor alone; a machine would undertake the bulk of the work.
If this story of Wordsmith beating out an NPR reporter unleashes a shiver of unease down your spine, you are not alone. The seemingly tongue-in-cheek contest undeniably echoes John Henry — it feels like we are on the brink of another mass job extinction. These extinctions have been cyclical since the Industrial Revolution: machines have replaced workers on railroads, factory floors, and now, they are creeping into the white collar working space. It’s an old, familiar tale. Trades become obsolete, entire industries collapse.
But with each cycle, workers don’t just disappear, they spill over onto the next line of work. At this point, it’s not a matter of if machines will replace us, but when — and if history as taught us anything, it most assured will.
It is difficult to argue that something that is inevitable is good or evil; when something is inevitable it simply is — it is just “change.” And that is precisely what we fear: instability and change. If we can learn anything from John Henry it’s that man vs. machine races signal the arrival of an automaton that could feasibly replace us. The signs are there, and if we can’t change it, we can at least be ready.