An NPR Reporter Raced A Machine To Write A News Story. Who Won?

May 20, 2015
Originally published on July 21, 2015 2:17 pm

Even the most creative jobs have parts that are pretty routine — tasks that, at least in theory, can be done by a machine. Take, for example, being a reporter.

A company called Automated Insights created a program called WordSmith that generates simple news stories based on things like sporting events and financial news. The stories are published on Yahoo! and via the Associated Press, among other outlets.

We wanted to know: How would NPR's best stack up against the machine?

To answer our question, NPR White House correspondent and former business reporter Scott Horsley agreed to go head to head against WordSmith.

The rules for the race: Both contenders waited for Denny's, the diner company, to come out with an earnings report. Once that was released, the stopwatch started. Both wrote a short radio story and get graded on speed and style.

Scott had a leg up: He used to be a Denny's regular. He even had a regular waitress, Genevieve, who knew his favorite order (Moons Over My Hammy, obviously).

When the Denny's earnings report came out, WordSmith finished writing the story in two minutes. Scott took just over seven minutes. Here's what they came up with.

Story #1 is, of course, the one written by the machine. It clearly doesn't have the style of Scott's story. But that could change.

WordSmith's tone is programmable. The story above was created by a program designed to mimic the straightforward tone of an AP news story. With some work from the company's engineers, WordSmith could study thousands of NPR stories, learn NPR's style, and start slinging its own breakfast-food metaphors.

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This morning's news is brought to you by human beings. That may not always be the case. Computers are sometimes writing news articles. So who's faster? Stacy Vanek Smith of NPR's Planet Money team set up a news writing race.

STACY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: The machine, Wordsmith, created by the company Automated Insights. Here's CEO Robbie Allen.

ROBBIE ALLEN: Wordsmith takes data and turns it into stories that sound as if a person wrote it.

SMITH: It's like a robot that writes news stories.

ALLEN: Something like that, yeah.

SMITH: Wordsmith writes those basic, fact-filled stories about sports results and financial news. They pop up everywhere.

ALLEN: And we generate over a billion stories a year.

SMITH: For our human challenger, we got the best.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

SMITH: So here are the rules of the contest. We took a really basic kind of story, the earnings report from the restaurant chain Denny's. It comes out right after the stock market closes. We will give the data to both reporters and see how they do. Our human, Scott Horsley, was confident. He used to go to Denny's all the time. They even knew his regular order.

HORSLEY: It was good because I didn't have to say, out loud, Moons Over My Hammy.

SMITH: All right, let's do this. The Wordsmith computer is booted up and ready to go down in North Carolina. Scott Horsley is at his desk.

HORSLEY: Oh, here we go.

SMITH: The earnings report is out.

HORSLEY: On my marks.

SMITH: Get set. Go. Horsley starts right away.

HORSLEY: Oh, Scott Horsley was a news spot writing man.

SMITH: We called up Automated Insights to see how the computer was doing. They hadn't even started.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I will tell my engineer that the race is officially on because they've gotten the earnings report. He's smiling now.

SMITH: One minute down, two minutes. I think the computer just finished.

HORSLEY: Well, all right.

SMITH: Scott doesn't slow down.

HORSLEY: All right, ding.

SMITH: All right, seven minutes and 30 seconds.


SMITH: Let me tell you, that is so fast - for a human.

HORSLEY: And the computer took how long?

SMITH: Two minutes.

HORSLEY: You know that movie where the guy comes across the finish line, like, two days after everybody else has finished in the marathon? That's - that's what this was like. But people still cheer for him because he's got so much heart.

SMITH: But the computer had already gone home with the medal. Here's a bit of the computer's masterpiece.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Denny's Corporation on Monday reported first-quarter profit of $8.5 million. The Spartanburg, S.C.-based company said it had profit of 10 cents per share.

HORSLEY: And then there was Horsley. The race was over. Most of the crowd had left when Horsley, limping and gasping for air, came into the stadium.

SMITH: With this news spot.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Denny's Corporation notched a Grand Slam of its own in the first quarter, earning a better-than-expected 10 cents a share as restaurant sales jumped by more than 7 percent. The growth in sales suggests consumers are opening their pocketbooks for pancakes, eggs and hash browns.

SMITH: It seems so clear; Scott totally beat the computer on style. Of course, the computer is only going to get better. People at Automated Insights told me if we wanted, they could program in a more humorous tone, even learn to sling a few breakfast-food metaphors. And one other thing. While that computer was racing Scott, it could also write 9,999 other stories at the same time. I told this to Scott.

HORSLEY: Congratulations to our future computer overlord...

SMITH: (Laughter).

HORSLEY: Automated Insights. I'd like to be working for you one day, Mr. Computer.

SMITH: Me, too. Stacy Vanek Smith, NPR News.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Support for Planet Money comes from Dropbox, maker of Dropbox for Business, built to help companies securely shape and manage files. Learn more at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.