Banking

Computers are no Dickens but the writing's on the wall for human authors

We used to assess a piece of writing by the standing of its author and its source. But that will no longer be the case when a machine has done the wordsmithing.

Written in Tokyo and dispatched to TechRepublic a day later from the lounge at Narita Airport at 22Mbps via a free wi-fi service.

Computers will never play chess. They will never reason. They will never be creative. Those have all been commonly held views over the past 50 years.

Yet none of those assertions has stood the test of time, and our machines have surpassed us in many areas - including manufacturing and production control, games, general and specific knowledge, medical diagnosis and business modelling.

In the technology sector, computers have been geared up to solve problems, initiate designs and invent solutions. But in the financial and banking sector they are now seeking out data and compiling reports. And these are the reports that you and I get to read.

Can we tell the difference? Granted, financial data and forecasts are about as dry a subject as you can imagine, and the people who had been producing them didn't exactly have to be Mark Twain, Charles Dickens or William Wordsworth.

So, here we are with computer algorithms translating company reports and accounts and sports statistics into readable prose for ordinary people. Does it matter? I reckon not.

They will no doubt be more consistent, diligent and honest than their human forerunners, but on the downside they will also be capable of making unknown systematic mistakes that are frozen into their base code by human programmers.

As ever, there are tradeoffs between human and machine. People get tired, make mistakes, and do bad things, while machines slavishly battle on with unquestioning energy, breadth of field and depth of analysis. They never get tired, take a day off or make a mistake - within the bounds of their programming, that is.

This technology is in its infancy today but it is learning fast and the migration is likely to go something like this: finance, banking, insurance, sports reporting, road traffic, train and air transport, global and regional news, medical assessments and so on.

I really can't see any sector escaping this trend and I can only imagine the relief it will bring to those who currently face a blank screen and writer's block.

Personally, I have no philosophical objections - or ones of any other kind, come to that - and I suspect that it is only a matter of time before machines take a news story and turn it into a book, or a book into a movie script.

The clock is ticking as they say, and I just hope we get a veracity checker in there at the same time. Who knows: this might be the way to get honesty and fair-dealing back into a number of sectors - by pushing the people out and the machines in.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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