In A World Where Machines Write, They Still Can’t Create

In A World Where Machines Write, They Still Won’t Create

There’s a long-standing premise: “Given an infinite number of typewriters, and an infinite number of monkeys, you will eventually get the complete works of Shakespeare.” But if you replace the typewriters with a database of Elizabethan phrases, and the monkeys with algorithms, will you get more than Shakespeare?

The Words You’re Looking For

In a recent New Yorker article, writer John Seabrook muses where predictive text will take us. Most of us have had experiences with predictive text. In its simple form, it’s the software that guesses the next word for us when we’re texting – sometimes with embarrassing results. For this article, Mr. Seabrook reluctantly gave in to working with Smart Compose, an application from the experts of information, Google. Smart Compose, however, is much smarter than the annoying habit of texting software to predict the rest of a word we’ve started to type. Smart Compose predicts the rest of a sentence. And, as Seabrook discovered, sometimes with a seemingly uncanny ability to offer up a “better suggestion.”

One of the pleasures of our team’s creation journeys is capturing the perfect verbiage for a campaign after a full wastepaper basket of ‘also ran’ copy. There’s nothing automated about the content we develop. Translating ideas into words and action is a process we love: organic and very human. It’s not just the words themselves, either; we have considered how those words will be read, consumed, felt and acted upon.

The Smart Compose program isn’t designed to communicate, but to reduce the repetitive work of tasks such as writing an email. For writers, the realization that artificial can compose, not just correct, predictive text is humbling. We have become accustomed to, if not appreciative of, the ability of our word processing programs to correct our spelling and grammar. But, as Seabrook observed, Smart Compose “isn’t correcting words I’ve already formed in my head; it’s coming up with them for me, by harnessing the predictive power of deep learning, a subset of machine learning.”

AI Gets Personal

The future of AI is even more unsettling for those who assumed that style, or voice, was something only we write could develop. We take great pride in being able to emulate the voice of our clients in brand messaging we develop for them. Before a single word is written, we’ve already done the work of understanding a client’s personality and unique perspectives; their persona. It’s old-fashioned and reliable relationship-building that informs our creative process. And that includes incorporating their distinctive style when writing digital posts, speeches and collaterals.

Seabrook reveals later in the article, AI can mimic not only a personal writing style, but, based on an analysis of previous communications, incorporate ideas previously expressed. That moves AI from copy editing to the realm of copy writing.

Predictive vs. Creative

However, that doesn’t mean that the advertising and PR agency of the future will be a neural net of machine learning and artificial intelligence spitting copy out in a perfectly crafted brand voice or delivering absolutely believable fake quotes attributable to real people. That’s because there’s a big difference between predictive and creative. A computer excels at chess because it can predict every possible outcome of any given move. As Seabrook realized after seeing artificial intelligence uncannily mimic his favorite writers, “the machine’s only goal is to predict the next word. It can’t sustain a thought, because it can’t think casually. Deep learning works brilliantly at capturing all the edgy patterns in our syntactic gymnastics, but because it lacks a pre-coded base of procedural knowledge it can’t use its language skills to reason or to conceptualize.”

Simply stated, machines can’t create. Nor can they feel. In the Star Trek Next Generation series in the 80s and 90s, one of the program’s ongoing subplots centered on an android named Data and his desire to become human. He could perfectly recreate any musical performance but couldn’t tell a joke or recognize when his fellow starship crew members were bluffing at poker. And, no matter what others experienced, he couldn’t understand their emotions.


At GillespieHall, we create, and we do it with emotion, empathy and authenticity. To us, that is the art of communication. We’d love to talk to you about what we can create to help you communicate. We might even tell a joke.

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