So there are links being passed round about EssayTyper. Hit the website and it renders a page with “Oh no! It’s finals week and I have to finish my [blank] essay immediately.” Put in a topic and then bang the keys. Voila! You have an essay.But, cleverly, what is going on is the application goes out and mines Wikipedia for information that is related to the topic that you entered previously. The results can be impressive. I hit it with the topic web development. This yielded a title for me of “Innovative or Simply Post-Modern? New Paradigms in the Study of “Web Development”” which sounds very impressive. It then proceeded to bang out Wikipedia content that was absolutely relevant.
More cleverly, there is code that doesn’t allow you to print or cut and paste the result! So I can’t represent the output here for you unless I go to the trouble of typing it in again. So I invite you to go bang on the keys yourself.
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.
I would agree with the sentiment that we need to consider what the objectives of the writing assignments are. Are they the representation of understanding on a topic, or the introduction, synthesis of original thought, critique, etc. And if the latter, it is very difficult using automated means to mark the work for this original value.