This article, no spoiler here, was written by a human being; 100 years from now, that most likely won’t be the case.
Software companies are working feverishly to perfect so-called artificial intelligence, electronic networks that employ algorithms and vast databanks to mimic human neural systems — brains — and the thinking they produce.
Already, such machines are being used to translate one language into another, with increasing accuracy.
Voice recognition software — think Apple’s digital assistant, Siri, or Google’s prosaically named Assistant — can convert human conversation to printed form, be it on paper or relayed digitally from one computer to another. Moreover, both can respond to verbal questions, often with verbal answers.
A century from now, such machines will have been installed in courtrooms, in corporate and governmental meeting rooms and anywhere else that events transpire.
Connected to databases that incorporate hundreds of thousands of news accounts that such systems’ increasingly sophisticated algorithms can mimic, they will be able to autonomously produce newspaper stories and make such accounts available at the touch of a finger.
Newspapers and magazines by then will be relics confined to museums and archives; some of those will be converted to digital files, a process underway today.
Readers will be able to click on any story they care to visually access or, alternatively, they’ll be able to verbally request the same story and have it played through a speck of a speaker inserted in the ear, a device far smaller than even the least obtrusive hearing aids available today.
With a separate audio command, that story will be sent to those with whom the listener cares to share it.
Man vs. machine
In 2004, a computer engineer and preternaturally gifted “Jeopardy!” contestant named Ken Jennings won 74 consecutive games on the television show, displaying a stunningly diverse knowledge of all manners of trivia.
Yet, in 2011, an IBM supercomputer named Watson — in honor of the company’s visionary chief Thomas J. Watson — routed the prodigy.
With 15 terabytes of reference data to draw on, and a programmed ability to learn from its failures — for instance, misinterpreting the nature of a clue, confusing, say, edible peanuts for the comic strip Peanuts — Watson rarely makes the same mistake twice.
System designers envision Watson, armed with voice recognition and a voice of its own, lightning processing speed and the tremendous volume of information it can instantly draw on, serving someday as a tool in any number of industries.
Already, similar machines are making complex medical diagnoses and rapidly distilling prodigious amounts of economic data to place winning bets on financial markets.
Journalism, while still requiring discernment, deep knowledge of the subject at hand, an ability to gather information, orally and through documents, nevertheless should be a piece of cake for such machines to produce.
Already, too, newspapers are invested in digitally distributing the information reporters and editors gather and develop.
Of course, the same articles still appear in printed newspapers.
In 2117, however, that will no longer be the case.
All journalism a century from now will be available only in digital formats, the machines that produce it having cross-checked and double-checked every word, every statistic, every name in the articles they “write.”
A century from now, the quote marks around the word write will be unnecessary; it will be a matter of fact that machines write, and that they write well.
After all, what Jennings, in comparison with that of his opponent, called “my puny human brain” — albeit one capable of turning a vast knowledge of trivia into more than $3 million in game-show winnings — was no match for Watson, not even close.
One wonders, then, just what chance will mere ink-stained wretches have against Watson’s progeny?
Of course, it is unlikely that anyone reading this today will be alive in 2117 to confirm such a phenomenon, and it’s true that a crystal ball’s spherical nature distorts whatever is viewed through it.
Besides, there is no such thing as a magical crystal ball.
Magical machines, now, that’s a whole different matter.