New |York Times Replaced by Black Box. World Relieved

Things looked bleak for the Angels when they trailed by two runs in the ninth inning, but Los Angeles recovered thanks to a key single from Vladimir Guerrero to pull out a 7-6 victory over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on Sunday.”

I think things have looked bleak for the  angels at least since Milton published Paradise Lost,  but things are now beginning to look bleak for grumpy columnists, and that is serious. Angels can look out for themselves.

The threat to all that is good and right in the world  (consisting in large part of grumpy columnists) is that a computer wrote the foregoing tale of baseballian angst and triumph. Specifically, a program called Quill from NarrativeScience wrote it. Worse, it wrote it in about three seconds, and worse yet, it is bruited in journalistic circles that many major outlets are using Quill and various of its brethren to spit out a lot of their copy. 

I find myself worrying that if they come up with a subroutine for bile, abomination, and sedition, I may be out of a job. Which I don’t have one of anyway. The logical  problems of losing a job one doesn’t have are daunting.

If one may trust the The New York Times,  usually doubtful but in this case probably not, the following poured forth from the depths of an electronic soul.

“When I in dreams behold thy fairest shade

Whose shade in dreams doth wake the sleeping morn

The daytime shadow of my love betray’d

Lends hideous night to dreaming’s faded form.”

Just what this concoction means is not altogether clear, a quality it shares with much poetry. I suspect that giving the software too much credit may be a mistake, since we con’t know how much the pump was primed with emotive words. 

Likewise this:

“Kitty couldn’t fall asleep for a long time. Her nerves were strained as two tight strings, and even a glass of hot wine, that Vronsky made her drink, did not help her. Lying in bed she kept going over and over that monstrous scene at the meadow.”

“As two tight strings” is sufficiently infelicitous as to suggest that a professor had written it, but otherwise it works. With tweaking it is not hard to imagine the thing writing Harlequin Romances in about five minutes each.


I found the above photo by searching on “Sex Robots.” Think how much journalism could save by replacing Megyn Kelly with this siliconical–very conical–young lady.  She would have to do nothing but look pretty and talk. Silicon ages well, and never causes labor problems, though it may need patching. And there wold be an “off” switch.

It is hard to distinguish stories written by some  clanking awful robot, or anyway code probably with lots of ugly curly brackets, from the outpourings of real reporters. Since a great many news stories consist of electronically available information plugged into fairly standard templates, then, really, truly and seriously, jobs are going to go away–progressively as the software matures.

Narrative Science’s co-founder estimates that 90 percent of news could be algorithmically generated by the mid-2020s, much of it without human intervention. Many things are easy for machines already: obits, financial stories, routine crime reports. Goodbye, cub reporters. Few will notice, because reporters won’t be fired, just never hired. We will have more young living in their parents’ basements.

Regular readers, if I have one, know that I keep saying that pretty soon automation is going to take all our jobs and have everybody living in homeless shelters and under park benches. This suggests a boom market in park benches, briefly employing thousands.  There are various ways of looking at this. On one hand, I have never liked jobs. On the other, robots only need to take some fraction of jobs across society and in the ensuing riots we will all kill each other. I don’t think we can stand too much leisure. Especially without money for buying beer and drugs.

White-collar jobs are very much in danger. Think of all the people sitting in cubicle farms, like letters in a crossword puzzle. Many, I suspect most, do things automatable, and do it far more slowly than a computer might. How long does it take an intelligent program to flash through court records to find those relevant to a particular case? There are programs in the works to intelligently handle customer-service calls, potentially unemplloying all those people in Mumbai who make life into a guessing game. Maybe a good thing. Siri at least speaks English.

Clerical jobs in particular are in imminent danger. Natalia, my  stepdaughter, went to her bank months ago and found a row of machines taking deposits, goodbye several clerks–white-collar clerks. The internet makes the problem worse. Until several years ago Violeta was teaching Spanish by Skype video to students all around the world for way below the rates of Berlitz. An American friend here has a steel-detailing business for construction firms, using Mexican and Philippine detailers by internet. The jukebox in a local bar gets music over the internet automatically, goodbye to the technician who used to replace CDs and fix the moving parts, which it barely any longer has. These are little things, but there are lots of them.

Lots of scary computer-driven stuff is close, some of it real close. It’s not just self-driving vehicles, goodbye cabbies, long-haul truckers, and delivery guys. Translation of languages by computer is getting spooky good, certainly for known-context conversation. My telephone will translate English into Latin, for God’s sake.  In Asia, as in America, only a  small percentage of people are really intelligent, but there are a whole lot of Asians. Their lack of English is the barrier keeping them from competing for America’s white-collar jobs by internet.

Economists are puzzled by this because they have no grasp of economics. They think the solution is to retrain displaced workers to do higher-tech things. This happy talk ignores that many of the replaced blue-collars are not smart enough to become IT managers and neurosurgeons, even if we had enough brain cancer, and that the jobs for which they would be retrained are rapidly being replaced themselves. Your can’t retrain fifty replaced clerks as programmers because the company already has programmers, and  anyway only needs five.

Meanwhile our patriotic businessmen want to bring in millions of prefabricated unemployables to help us be out of work. See? Robots and humans working together. Cooperation is a key to success in almost every thing. Question: How much unemployment is needed for things to get ugly?  When does it boil over?

Fred can be reached at Put the letters “pdq” somewhere in the subject line to avoid autodeletion. Due to volume I can’t answer everyone but I try to read everything.

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