Can robots write sports previews?

Considered a creative skill, writing has long been seen as mostly immune to automation and commoditization — the seemingly inevitable end-state of anything touched by the Internet. Perhaps no longer.

What’s the score?

One of the more ubiquitous writing genres is sports reporting. Countless publications, portals, aggregators and distributors in print, radio, TV and Internet cover team rosters, game previews, schedules, results and all manner of short notices from Little League to college games to professional sports. An army of writers are routinely tasked to generate the base content for this wide spectrum of sports coverage.

Here’s a recent example. Despite having been promoted as championship contenders this year but currently being at the very bottom of the NBA standings, Brooklyn Nets and NY Knicks recently met. The day before the game, as is customary, a “preview” of the upcoming game for general syndication had to be written. Something with a lede like this:

Lede1

Now remember, there are games in all sports. At all levels. Across the entire world. Every single day. There are also daily and and hourly developments to be covered in finance, weather, healthcare, marketing, real estate, politics, entertainment, transportation, technology and myriad other fields. There’s always been an insatiable demand for expository writing across the board. While domains are very different, to an analytical eye all such data-driven writing share two important traits: they’re very structured and highly automatable. Everything in the game preview above is simple prose, wrapped around stored data, shown in blue here:

Lede2

It turns out one NBA game preview is pretty much the same as any other similar game. We could structurally separate parts that can be substituted for different data about the other 28 teams and roughly the same compositional logic:

Lede3

If we can now plug in team-specific names, places and data wherever there’s one of those blue-bracketed placeholders above, we could customize a game preview so specifically to a given event that I’m confident 95% of the reading public couldn’t tell if those sentences were composed by a human writer or an algorithm, like the one I pseudo-reverse-engineered and highly simplified below:

Lede4

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your perspective and profession, such algorithmic-writing is not some hovering, hyperlooping fantasy. Here’s the actual preview that ran across many sites on the Internet and elsewhere before the game:

Full Preview

And syndicated in one of the biggest such venues, Yahoo Sports:

Human Version

Who’s your daddy?

See the non-human byline below the headline, Automated Insights? That’s one of the new generation of companies involved in algorithmic writing. There are, and will be, others. For the initiated, the technology is quite straight forward. Often structured data is the gating factor, not compositional technology. Parsing and conditional templating technology is well understood by now. It’s tedious but low-scale pieces could be done with procedural programming, larger ones with rules engines and truly scalable and flexible ones with semantic coupling of the domain specific data.

In fact, many aspects of the writing itself is amenable to conditional embellishment of the parts of speech. For example, in the piece above, we could have pre-programmed a list of synonyms for “struggled” and picked a substitute randomly or one specific to geography, audience or sports. Lexical stylization can indeed get very sophisticated through contextual or randomized algorithms. Management of such conditional logic and metadata at scale has been possible for a couple of decades. When composing a personalized investment report or answering a question on your iPhone, your broker and Siri (though using different technologies underneath) already do something similar.

The advantage

In our example, the day before the game there was another “Knicks-Nets Preview” written by a human, Associated Press basketball writer Brian Mahoney, also syndicated in Yahoo Sports. The two pieces clearly serve different purposes. Mahoney’s article is much longer, as well as being significantly more detailed, colorful and analytical. Automated Insights’s preview is all about brevity, information, timeliness and, ultimately, volume, coverage and cost-effectiveness. In one millionth of the time it takes Mahoney to write one of his NBA previews, Automated Insights can generate previews for all the games not just in NBA but in all sports, anywhere on the planet, as long as there’s underlying data. And in a domain like sports, there’s plenty of data.

The differentiating cost of algorithmic writing is nearly all front-loaded on template and conditional logic programming. When done properly, this can obviate post-production fact checking and proof reading. Once set up, these pieces can be auto-produced when underlying data changes or when schedules are triggered. Thus the marginal cost of iterative articles approaches zero.

The day has arrived

Clearly, programmed robots can in fact write sports previews. And many other types of writing suitable for algorithmic automation. As is the case with the Internet, this will displace a lot of writers and also create concomitant technology jobs elsewhere.

It would be easy to dismiss this as procedural, utilitarian writing that doesn’t share much with literary prose. Granted. But such competition is not the focus of algorithmic writing. Not yet, anyway. Given enough nouns, verbs and associations in a specific knowledge domain, you’d be surprised how close you can come in compositional “believability” even today. Tomorrow, don’t be surprised if your next textbook or travel guide or cookbook is written mostly by domain-specific algorithms. And welcome to the [“brave” | “splendid” | “efficient” | “fearful” | “faceless” | “decimating”] new world of algorithms…eating yet another profession!

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You might also be interested in:
Is Siri really Apple’s future? and Can Siri go deaf, mute and blind?

29 shades of insult to injury

For advertising agencies two critical moments are when the team pitches to get a new account and when it finally presents its creative solution after weeks of work to start production. How many “options” should be shown to the client at this juncture is a matter of creative-process folklore.

There’s always the good old triple: “good, better, best” a.k.a. “throw-away, can-live-with, must-sell”. Some would go further than three. It’s not uncommon for boutiques to bet on just one solution and try to convince the client. Whether it’s one, three or six, I bet no one has ever heard of 29 options. Unless you work at Yahoo.

A new CEO looking for a quick turnaround getting company logo redesigned? American as apple pie. Some succeed, some fail and most never get more than a week’s worth of traction. Not a big deal, if you just have a press conference, a happy photo-op and your designer gushing over the “how we did it” part in some design pub. (Especially double-delicious if it’s the CEO who’s doing the write-up!) These are as harmless as they are unavoidable.

But 29 days of unrelenting assault on the design sensibilities of the few who cared? Unfruitful. Yahoo’s intention wasn’t crowd-voting or crowd-sourcing its next logotype after 18 years. The crowd couldn’t do anything about the options. So it was a one-way presentation of five horrid letters plus a punctuation mark day after day for a month. And at no point the crowd could cry uncle.

Yahoooptions

What then is Yahoo telling us?

We don’t care: We think logotype design is a frivolous activity. Since the goal of what it needs to be isn’t quite clear to us, we can post 29 superfluous variations in as many days. Hey, if you challenge us, we could algorithmically generate 365 options in one hour, one day, one year or until you surrender.

We know we should care: We care about logotype design, it represents our brand. We want people to know that we’re changing Yahoo, the company. The crowd can’t yet see the change fully but they can see the logotype change before their eyes. Since the logotype represents our brand which represents our company…well, you get our drift.

More is less: Look, we already had the logotype design we wanted weeks ago. We had interns come up with a few dozen variations and we let you see just 29 of them. You have no idea what the rest looked like. You’re welcome.

We’re not pros at this: We can’t shout from the rooftops. We don’t have ad budgets the size of Samsung’s or even Microsoft’s. Fine, we probably have more web traffic than both combined to expose people to anything we wanted, but we didn’t bother figuring out how we could use that traffic to have them look at what actually matters: who we are and what we want to accomplish as a company. (OK, that would have been dicey because, frankly, we still haven’t figured that out yet.)

See if we care: Yes, we know we could have done things differently. For example, we could have:

  • respected the design community and the digerati by serving them something serious for a month so that they could become catalysts to positive conversations about our company on a daily basis. (We may still have to recruit a few of those creative types, after all.)
  • tastily presented daily videos and sketches of 29 different designers discussing our logo, brand and company.
  • hosted these logotype options at one specific Yahoo property per day (we have dozens of properties) to draw much needed attention to them.
  • set up a million-dollar (non-binding) logotype contest (with a nominal $29 entry fee to keep out the riffraff) to attract serious designers and design firms. Cheap.
  • video streamed the final selection process, with a few mega-celebs thrown in to attract a crowd and even serve a few ads (or promos for our properties) in the process to boot.
  • had the sensibility to not come up with an anemic rehashing of the old logotype, sans serifs but now with bevels (bevels!) like it was the go-go ’90s.

Yahoologos

It’s a logotype for crying out loud: Yes, we could have done a lot of different things besides throwing 29 disparate high school lettering projects on the internets for a month to see if anyone cared. But that would have required adult supervision for design and, honestly, we don’t care that much.

Now you know.

*

1. I’d love to see Yahoo succeed, I’ve been using many of their services for years.

2. You might also be interested in “Ordered Information” is not a paint job where we consider the sorry spectacle of Yahoo Finance design.

Google: “There has been a shift in our thinking…”

For many years when Google was under threat of regulatory action for manipulating its search results for its own commercial gain, the company used every trick in the book — including ignorance, incompetence, safe harbor, fair use, First Amendment and even web traffic beneficence — to avoid criticism in the press and investigation by regulators.

Above all, despite many examples to the contrary, Google appealed to manifest impartiality: its search results were algorithmically derived, untouched by human biases and thus fair. The list of grandiose promises and statements made by Google that turned out to be false and hypocritical is uncomfortably long. Unfortunately for the rest of us, regulatory capture being what it is and the rare penalties being laughable for a $275 billion company, there isn’t much of a black cloud left over Google to worry about, especially under the current U.S. administration.

So perhaps Google now feels freshly emboldened to tell it like it is. In any case, I was impressed by this frank admission in New York Times:

Even at Google, where algorithms and engineers reign supreme in the company’s business and culture, the human contribution to search results is increasing. Google uses human helpers in two ways. Several months ago, it began presenting summaries of information on the right side of a search page when a user typed in the name of a well-known person or place, like “Barack Obama” or “New York City.” These summaries draw from databases of knowledge like Wikipedia, the C.I.A. World Factbook and Freebase, whose parent company, Metaweb, Google acquired in 2010. These databases are edited by humans.

When Google’s algorithm detects a search term for which this distilled information is available, the search engine is trained to go fetch it rather than merely present links to Web pages.

“There has been a shift in our thinking,” said Scott Huffman, an engineering director in charge of search quality at Google. “A part of our resources are now more human curated.”

Not a shift, but a new admission of on-going reality, I’d say. Let’s hope for Scott Huffman’s sake he ran this by Google legal before it was published. Or better yet, let’s hope Google now stops the unbecoming pretensions to being philosophically open and algorithmically impartial.

An interim solution for iOS ‘multitasking’

There are many counterintuitive ‘rules’ in product design, these two are among the most intractable:

• The more successful a product, the harder it’s to upgrade.

• The more users say they want a product update, the more they complain when the change arrives.

It wouldn’t be unkind to ascribe both of them to the iOS platform: spectacularly successful and at the crossroads for the mother of all upgrades for both hardware and software, now commandeered for the first time by a single person who’s not named Steve Jobs. The financial impact of these design decisions is easily the 64-billion dollar question at Cupertino.

What has changed?

Having already sold over 120 million iPads in less than two years, Apple’s now making the sales pitch to hundreds of millions of potential post-PC consumers that iPads may be ‘OR’ devices, not just ‘AND’ adjuncts to their desktops and notebooks of yesteryear.

The iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010 created their respective industry segments, then went on to dominate what was mostly virgin territory with a simple proposition: One Device > One Account > One App > One Window.

Several years after their introduction, now with many competitors, Apple is under pressure to examine every link in that chain of platform definition. And the one most contested is the last: One Window. While it’s true that iOS apps can contain two (and sometimes even more) ‘views’ in one screen, like the standard Master-Detail views, two different apps cannot share the same window. A blog writing app on an iPad can, for example, dedicate portions of its single window to video, map, search engine results or tweet displays, but not specifically to Vimeo, Google Maps, Bing or Twitter apps. In the sandboxed territories of iOS, ‘One Device > One Account > One App > One Window’ is still the law of the land.

As iPads move into business, education, healthcare and other vertical markets, however, expectations of what iPads should do beyond audio, video, ebook and simple app consumption have gone up dramatically. After all, users don’t just inertly read in one app at a time but write, code, design, compose, calculate, paint, clip, tweet, and, in general, perform multiple operations in multiple apps to complete a single task in one app.

In iOS, this involves double-clicking the Home button, swiping in the tray to find the other app, waiting for it to (re)load fully, locating the app view necessary to copy, double-clicking the Home button, finding the previous app in the tray and waiting for it to (re)load fully to paste the previously copied material. That’s just one operation between two apps. Composing a patient review for a doctor or creating a presentation for a student can easily involve many such operations among multiple apps.

Indeed, among the major post-iOS mobile platforms like Android, Metro and BlackBerry, iOS is the most cumbersome and slowest at inter-app navigation and task completion. There have been a few mitigating advances: gestural swipes, faster processors and more memory certainly help but the inter-app task sharing problem is becoming increasingly more acute. Unfortunately, solving iOS’s multitasking problem in general involves many other considerations, including introduction of UX complexity and thus considerable user re-education, to say nothing of major architectural OS changes. It may thus take Apple longer than expected to find an optimal solution. What can Apple do in the interim then?

Is ‘Multi’ the opposite of ‘One’?

Systems designers know all too well: when you just don’t have the time, money, staff or technology to solve a given problem, there are ways to cheat. Steve Jobs would be the first to tell you: that’s OK. A well executed cheat can be indistinguishable from a fundamental architectural transition.

From a design perspective, the weakest link in the one-task-many-operations-in-different-apps problem is the iOS clipboard. The single-slot clipboard. The one that forces the user to shuffle laboriously among apps to collect all the disparate items one. at. a. time.

But with a multi-slot clipboard, if you were writing a report, for example, you could go to a web page, copy the URL, a paragraph, maybe a photo and a person’s email address in one trip. Now a single trip back to the initial app and you have four items ready to be pasted into appropriate places with no more inter-app shuffle necessary. Instant 4X productivity gain. Simply put, if you had a four-slot clipboard, you can instantly quadruple your productivity. For a ten-slot clipboard, 10X!

Well, obviously, it’s not that easy. First of all, Apple doesn’t believe in multi-slot clipboards and doesn’t even ship one with Mac OS X. Also, you couldn’t really have an ‘infinite-slot’ clipboard, for iOS would run out of memory quickly. Finally, a multi-slot clipboard would require a visible UI for the user to select the right content, thereby introducing some cognitive complexity.

None of these objections seem insurmountable, though. iOS already has a similarly useful ‘option selectors’ like the recent ‘share sheets’ from which a user can send stuff to Twitter, Facebook, email, etc. Limiting the clipboard to four slots would enable at least 250-pixel square previews of each slot’s contents for easy identification. The Clipboard could pop, move up, slide in from right or perform some other clever animated appearance. Yes, there could be a cognitive penalty for having to be concerned about system-memory management, but a bit of user training for the concept of ‘First In, First Out’ or a little alert to the user indicating memory-intensive copying would go a long way.

It’s not my job to suggest Jony Ive how this might be implemented in UI and UX. But until Apple has a more general solution to multitasking and inter-app navigation, the four-slot clipboard with a visible UI should be announced at WWDC. I believe it would buy Ive another year for a more comprehensive architectural solution, as he’ll likely need it.

Things Apple Has Not Yet Done

It’s hard to like Apple. To the dismay of conventional thinkers everywhere, the fruit company sambas to its own tune: makes the wrong products, at the wrong prices, for the wrong markets, at the wrong time. And, infuriatingly, wins.

Some of Apple’s ill-advised moves are well known. When other PC companies were shuttering their retail stores, Apple opened dozens in the most expensive locales. During the post-dotcom crash, instead of layoffs, Apple spent millions to hire and boost R&D. To the “Show us a $500 netbook, now!” amen corner Apple gave the un-netbook iPad, not at $999 but $499. The App Store and iTunes are still not open. Google hasn’t been given the keys to iOS devices yet…Clearly, this is a company that hasn’t learned the market-share-über-alles lesson from the Wintel era and is repeating the same mistakes, again. Like these:

• Media company — The slick design of Apple gadgets wouldn’t be nearly enough if it weren’t for the fact that Apple has quietly become the world’s biggest digital content purveyor. The availability of a vast library of media, coupled with the ease of purchase and the lock-in effect these purchases create, could easily tempt a lesser outfit to fashionably declare itself a “media company”. After all, Macromedia tried that with its AtomFilms purchase in 2000. Real and Yahoo dabbled in various forms media creation, acquisition and distribution. Microsoft fancied itself a part-media company with investments in publishing (Slate) and cable (MSNBC, Comcast). Amazon has several imprints of its own. Netflix is now an episodic TV producer. Google is investing hundreds of millions in original material for YouTube. Apple, on the other hand, has always resisted creating and owning content, because…

• Indies — … Apple plays for the fat middle part of the bell curve. Once a bit player in computers and consumer electronics, Apple’s now a giant. Whether it’s music, TV shows, movies or ebooks, Apple targets the mainstream, and the mainstream demands the availability of mainstream content from top labels, studios and publishers. It’s very tempting to urge Apple to sign deals right and left with independent producers in entertainment and publishing, to bypass traditional gatekeepers and ‘disrupt’ their respective industries, on the cheap. Unfortunately, beyond modest promotional efforts with indies, it doesn’t look like Apple’s likely to upset the mainstream cart from which it makes so much money.

Tapose

• Multitasking — “One device. One account. One app. One window. One task.” seems to be Apple’s current approach to Post-PC computing. If iPads are going to cannibalize PCs in the workplace or schools, iOS workflow patterns will have to evolve. Bringing multiple user accounts to the same device, showing two windows from two different apps in the same view with interaction between the two or letting all/most apps work in the background would necessitate quite a bit of user re-education in the iOS camp. It’s not clear for how long Apple can afford not to provide such functionalities.

• PDF replacement — Apple’s tumultuous love affair with PDF goes back nearly 25 years to Display PostScript during its NeXT prequel. PDF may now be “native” to Mac OS X and the closest format of exchange for visual fidelity, but it’s become slow, fat, cumbersome and not well integrated with HTML, the lingua franca of the web. While PDF is too entrenched for the print world, ePub 3.0 seems to be emerging as an alternative standard for interactive media publishing. Apple does support it, even with Apple-created extensions, but composing and publishing polished ePub material is still a maddeningly complex, hit-and-miss affair. iBooks Author is a great start, but its most promising output is iTunes-only. If Apple has big ideas in this space, it’s not obvious from its available tools or investments.

• HTML 5 tools — While iBooks Author makes composing app-like interactive content possible without having to use Xcode, Apple has no comparable semi-professional caliber tool for creating web sites/apps for the browser. Apple has resisted offering anything like a Hypercard-level tool for HTML that sits in between the immense but disjointed JavaScript/CSS open ecosystem and the powerful but hard-to-master Xcode. It has killed iWeb and still keeps iAd Producer mostly out of sight. Clearly, Apple doesn’t want more apps but more unique apps to showcase the App Store. HTML isn’t much of a differentiator there and until the ROI in HTML 5 vs. native apps becomes clearer to Apple, such tools are unlikely to arrive anytime soon.

Discovr

• Discovery tools — Yes, Apple has Genius, but that’s a blackbox. Genius is simple and operates in the background silently. It doesn’t have a visual interface like Spotify, Aweditorium, Music Hunter, Pocket Hipster, Groovebug or Discovr Music, allowing users to actively move around a musical topology visually, aided by various social network inputs. With its Ping attempt and Twitter and Facebook tie-ups, Apple has shown it’s at least interested in the social angle, but a more dedicated, visual and fun discovery tool is still absent not just for music but also for TV, movies, books and apps.

Pushpin

• Map layers — Over the last few years Apple has acquired several map-related companies, one of which, PlaceBase, was known for creating “layers” of data-driven visualizations over maps. Even before its messy divorce from Google, Apple has chosen not to offer any such map enhancements. When properly designed, maps are great base-level tools over which lots of different kinds of information can be interactively delivered, especially on touch-driven mobile devices where Siri also resides.

• iOS device attachments — One of the factors that made iPods and iPhones so popular has been the multi-billion dollar ecosystem of peripherals that wrap around or plug into them. However, besides batteries and audio equipment, there’s been a decided dearth of peripherals that connect to the 30-pin port to do useful things in medicine, education, automation, etc. Apple’s attention and investment in this area have been lackluster. Perhaps the new iPad mini coupled with the tiny Lightning Connector will rekindle interest by Apple and third parties in various domains.

Apple glasses

• Wearables — Google Glass is slated for production in a year or so, Apple’s known assets in wearable computing devices amount to a few patents. There’s much debate as to how this field will shape up. Apple may choose to augment iPhones with simpler and cheaper devices like smart watches that work in tandem with the phone, instead of stand-alone but expensive devices like Google Glass. So far ‘wearables’ doesn’t even register as a hobby in Apple’s interestgram.

Stylus

• Stylus — Apple has successfully educated half a billion users in the art of multitouch navigation and general use of mobile devices. That war, waged against one-year old babies and 90-year old grandmas, has been decisively won. However, until Apple invents a more precise method, taking impromptu notes, sketching diagrams and annotating documents with a (pressure sensitive) stylus remains a superior alternative to the finger. Some may consider the notion of a stylus (even one dedicated only to the specialized tasks cited above) a niche not worthy of Apple’s interest. And yet not too long ago 5-7 inch mobile devices were also considered niches.

• Games — Apple’s on course to become the biggest gaming platform. This without any dedicated game control or motion sensing input devices like the Xbox 360 Kinect and despite half-hearted attempts like the Game Center. Apple has been making steady progress on the CPU/GPU front on iOS devices and now the new Apple TV is also getting an A5X-class chip, capable of handling many console-level games. It remains unclear, however, if Apple has the desire or the dedicated resources to leapfrog not just Sony and Nintendo but also Microsoft in the games arena, with a strategy other than steady, slow erosion of the incumbents’ base.

• iOS Pro devices — Apple has so far seen no reason to bifurcate its iOS product line along entry/pro models, like MacBooks/MacBook Pros. iOS devices sell in the tens of millions every quarter into many complex markets in over 100 countries. Further complicating its SKU portfolio with more models is not the Apple way. More so than iPhones, an iPad with a “Pro” designation with specs to match has so far been not forthcoming. And yet several hundred million of these devices are now sold to business and education, where better security, provisioning, app distribution, mail handling, multitasking, hardware robustness, cloud connectivity, etc., will continue to be requested as check-mark items.

• Money — Apple hasn’t done much with money, other than accumulating about $140 billion in cash and marketable securities for its current balance sheet. It hasn’t yet made any device with NFC, operated as a bank, issued AppleMoney like Amazon Coins or Facebook Credits, offered a branded credit card or established a transactional platform (ignoring the ineptly introduced Passbook app). It has a tantalizing patent application for a virtual money transfer service (like electronic hawala) whereby iOS users can securely send and receive cash anywhere, even from strangers. With close to half a billion credit card accounts, the largest in the world, Apple has the best captive demographics for some sort a transactional sub-universe, but it’s anybody’s guess what it may actually end up doing with it or when.

Half empty or more to fill?

It would be easy and fun to spend another hour to triple this list of Things-Apple-Has-Not-Yet-Done. While not all of these would be easy to implement, none of them would be beyond Apple’s ability to execute. Most card-carrying AAPL doomsayers, however, would look at such a list and conclude: See, Apple’s fallen behind, Apple’s doomed!

There’s, of course, another way of interpreting the same list. Apple could spend a good part of the next decade bundling a handful of these Yet-To-Be-Done items annually into an exciting new iOS device/service to sell into its nearly half billion user base and beyond. Apple suffers from no saturation of market opportunities.

Apple will inevitably tackle most of these, but only in its own time and not when it’s yelled at. It’ll likely introduce products and services not on this or any other list that will end up rejiggering an industry or two. Apple will do so because it knows it won’t win by conventional means or obvious schedules…which makes it hard — for those who are easily distracted — to like Apple.