Robot Writers, Robot Readers?

bios [bible]

Both students and faculty are passing around links to EssayTyper, a website that opens with the simple prompt: “”Oh no! It’s finals week and I have to finish my [blank] essay immediately.” At first, it looks like an actual paper mill, perhaps a stop for desperate students to finish that last essay. Instead, it’s a “magic” word processor that pulls information straight out of Wikipedia and into a pseudo processor as the user presses any keys at all. The result can be entertaining, as with the below “essay” on writing.


The most “original” part of EssayTyper’s output is the title, which is where most of the entertainment value comes from with output like “The Fluidity of Ipad. Gender Norms & Racial Bias in the Study of the Modern ‘Ipad.’” Who wouldn’t want to read that? It’s akin to the conference paper name generator that combines buzzwords with the user’s submitted topic.

While I hope that no one sees EssayTyper and submits the output as their final essay this semester, I do hope that students see it. The mindless hammering on the keyboard to produce the “magic paper” is not so different an action from the cut and paste Google search method that leads to a visit to the academic honesty review board. EssayTyper’s output as it stands might not look much like a “real” final essay (at least, let’s hope not!), but as a vision of the future it is perhaps not as far from the mark.

At ProfHacker we’ve talked about how digital tools and communities have transformed writing and writing instruction, but digital tools also make it easier than ever to see personal writing as redundant. A student can see other essays on the same topic they are contemplating, or view the aggregate knowledge of a Wikipedia page, and never have the feeling that their writing covers something new. Google overload can be discouraging or overwhelming to a person processing information while that same data provides an opportunity for automated writing light years beyond EssayTyper’s parody.

Steven Levy asked in a recent Wired piece, “Can an algorithm write a better news story than a human reporter?”,  and pointed to the work of Narrative Science, a company that takes analysis and algorithms of data-heavy subjects like sports and outputs a news article, complete with tone and even style. The robot works on familiarity and the knowledge of its mentor-programmers, not so unlike the learning process of any writer picking up the style of a particular field. But the question can easily be expanded: can algorithms replace students? Professors?

To some extent, they already have. The story of robot reporters parallels with Marc Bousquet’s recent piece, “Robots are grading your papers“. Marc Bousquet points out that the substitution works in standardized situations: “Machines can reproduce human essay-grading so well because human essay-grading practices are already mechanical.” Certainly the essay-grading rubrics of standardized tests leave little room for interpretation. And with robots also writing, I can only wonder how their essays would score by the standards of their fellow machines.

It’s not a comfortable thought, but perhaps the entrance of robots into the fray can be a reminder of why the teaching of writing is so important: Rachel Toor wrote about the importance of deeper feedback (beyond what an automated tool, like the writing feedback in Pages, can do) in the teaching of writing. I plan to show EssayTyper to my freshmen to encourage them to be aware of when they are engaging in writing–and when they’re caught up in cutting and pasting, or taking the backseat to outside sources and automatic filler.

We can thus perhaps be reassured that humans are still the ones reporting on the robot reporters, and students writing those final essays will have to look a little further than an automated writing companion. What do you think of using automated tools to grade writing? Do you see a role for robots in the writing process? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons Licensed Photo by Flickr User Gastev]

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