Why writers can’t yet be replaced by AI

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, complex data analysis, robotics. Drones, drone delivery, flying cameras, satellites, space imagery, fully functional prosthetic limbs. Hoverboards, self-driving cars, Alexa, Siri. Did I miss any buzz words? It’s all happening. Marty and Doc Brown would have their minds blown by the explosion of smart technology becoming mainstream right now.

But I have to believe that the one thing we still have over machines is our ability to write in a way that resonates with other humans. It just is. From content to comedy, from news reports to blogs to PR hooks, no matter how you approach it, the need for quality writing, for humans by humans, is only increasing in demand.

I won’t deny that technology has been helping us do our jobs better for years. I’m all about that keyword analysis, using data and hashtags to find topics that resonate, evaluating the best time of day to post, observing audience behavior and preferences, sentiment analysis, and on and on. However. There comes a point —mostly the point where the proverbial pen hits the paper — when a human brain is simply required.

Maybe I’m wrong. In which case, I’ll be out of a job and it won’t much matter anyway. But I really believe this to be true. The day we see drones surveying a women’s march and sending data back to a machine that can automatically spit out pithy news reports about the crowd size, gather hard-hitting quotes and categorize the most clever signage by level of sass, I’ll admit we should be concerned.

But sometimes there is no amount of data or technology that can replace the outpouring of emotion on a page, the beauty of a poetic interpretation of the human condition. There’s no way to mimic the level of human understanding needed to convey news of something like a terror attack with the perfect blend of empathy and concern, in a way that both informs the public and mitigates the possibility of causing mass hysterics.

Alternatively, though I’m sure it can easily be written by a simple robot, only humans possess the brilliance necessary to make a keyword-heavy blog post about the latest in photocopy paper or a 2-year-old Silicon Valley app’s 3rd round of funding sound remotely interesting (sorry anyone who works in paper and/or just raised funding).

There are two things, in my mind, that make a really good writer, and thus far these are things that only humans possess. Neither of them are really common qualities, and without patting myself on the back as I call myself a professional writer, I will also acknowledge that “good” writing is still extremely subjective.

One quality is an abnormally high level of empathy. A lot of people feel sympathy. Often. “I feel so bad for homeless people whenever I walk by them.” Or “I feel so bad for my friend who just got fired.” But it’s much, much harder to feel empathy. It’s even harder to determine how to act on that empathy. Empathy is the ability to literally feel what that person is feeling, to understand where their thoughts are coming from and the path they took to get to where they are. It’s considering what your struggling neighbor is feeling and what he really needs. As a writer, I contribute by telling his story in a way that allows people to more easily empathize in the hope that maybe next time someone will stop and think twice about simply walking past that person on the street.

The second quality is a superhuman ability to make interesting hooks out of nothing. And by interesting, I mean interesting to the very particular audience you’re looking to reach. I could write a story about the space heater I’m currently staring at for about 5 different audiences. Each would have a very different hook. I don’t think any would be particularly riveting, let’s be honest, but I would strive to find meaning out of something that on the surface appears entirely mundane. Alternatively, I can tell an actually interesting story in several different ways by pulling different elements of the story to the surface. Because depending on the audience, different pieces will resonate more and others less. And that goes back to an ability to empathize with the intended audience.

The empathy piece is huge. That’s in fact what sets us apart as a species. Humans are the only living beings with the capacity to empathize. And I don’t believe that’s something that we’ve yet been able to replicate through technology.

So for now, amid this growing hysteria about jobs that will soon be replaced by machines, I will rest assured that my particular industry is in no immediate danger. And I will emphasize the need for every brand, every person looking to reach and resonate with another human, to find that great communicator, or two or several, and get them on your team. The value of content writers — good writers — is becoming increasingly more apparent.

For an example of what might happen in the absence of that skillful communication, we can look no further than the disaster that is our current press secretary (whose job is, ironically, to convey important information in a way that the public can understand). On the other hand, we can observe the incredible opportunity he’s afforded the writers of Melissa McCarthy’s legendary skits. No one would remember Mr. Spicer in the least had that SNL team not leveraged his supreme knack for human mis-understanding as a way of resonating with their liberal-minded audience. Well done, on all accounts. And my god, when will we relieve that man from his regular, sweat-filled moments at that podium.

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