Could a Computer Write this Article?

An archetypal journalist

Photo Credit: guardian.co.uk

By Yonatan Gordon

In our entry “The Paradox Invention” we discussed Samuel Arbesman’s article “Explain It to Me Again, Computer: What if technology makes scientific discoveries that we can’t understand?” Let’s start by quoting from his article:

“…What if it were possible to create discoveries that no human being can ever understand? For example, if I were to give you a set of differential equations, while we have numerical and computational methods of handling these equations, not only could it be difficult to solve them mathematically, but there is a decent chance that no analytical solution even exists.”

In “The Paradox of Invention” (and subsequent) articles, we discussed some of the uniqueness of the human mind over that of the computer: that we can count the “nothingness” of “somethings”; jump or quantum leap to the answer, whereas computers are sequential inventions. While humankind may not win every chess match, the possibilities of the human mind are indeed extraordinary. As we like to say, the true “singularity” of the future will not be fraught by a race of robots bent on world domination. Instead, we are approaching a singularity of human potential; a time when our super-human abilities and potentials are fully manifest.

It should not be surprising then that even after reading Wired.com’s article “Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?”, we still feel justified in favoring human journalists over the metallic sort. But the article does raise some compelling points. Given the same set of facts and figures, is there any article, five years from now, that will still be immune to data-mining technology?

The Art of Study

In the Torah, we learn about a disease called tzara’at (Biblical leprosy), and how the individual suffering from it is purified. While the primary sign of impurity is that the skin lesion is white, the sages explain that there are in total four types of lesion appearances. These four shades (from dazzling white to matte white), so rely on their specificity, that a particular pantone shade would likely need to be assigned for each. But what is the significance of the differences between these four types of lesions in Jewish law?

As the Rambam (Maimonides) explains, in actual practice, there is no difference between these four shades; a lesion contained within any one of these skin shades could mean that the lesion is impure. In that case, why should we need to distinguish between these shades? As the Rambam concludes, even though there is no practical application to the distinction between the four types of lesions, nonetheless, the kohen must know how to distinguish between them!

In order to diagnose tzara’at in practice, and to proclaim whether a lesion is pure or impure, the kohen must be skilled in definitions that have no practical application!

For Study’s Sake

At first glance, all this seems to be enigmatic, especially in the eyes of a realist. But the student of the Talmud is very familiar with this approach to study. The Talmud contains myriads of topics, pages and pages of long and detailed discussions about hypothetical situations that have no reasonable chance of ever becoming a practical query.

The inner dimension of the Torah explains that when we study Torah, we are constantly occupied with actual reality. Just as our physical world seems to be tangible and real, so there are other spiritual worlds that are no less real. The truth is that those laws that have no expression in the physical world that our eyes perceive, do actually describe a reality that is tangible in the higher worlds (which the inner dimension of the Torah deals with in detail).

This does not mean that we should underrate the importance of our physical actions in this world. But it is important to recognize the essential significance of the Torah, and of Torah study, even when it remains within the walls of the study hall.

The Human Makes the Impractical, Practical

The above mentioned law pertaining to tzara’at reveals something most profound. That in order to reach a practical conclusion in Jewish law, one must be familiar with abstract definitions that have no practical application!

It is also in virtue of our study of abstract things, that we can outwit the computer. A data-mining program can only collect the practical (which is why it does well with play-by-play sports and finance writing). But when it comes to the human element of study, it is left without the tools to quantify it. In order to be able to rule either “pure” or “impure” in the case of tzara’at, the cohen needs to first know the distinction between the four shades of white. Even though there is no difference in practical application, at some profound level, there is. Things that appear to be detached from reality, do actually have some influence on the practical diagnosis.

Healing the Reader

So there is hope yet for the human. While a computer relies on rationalism, a human appreciates those irrational (or super-rational) elements to life. There is more to writing a story than weaving together observable data. There are things that interest us simply because there are important on a more profound level.

While relating to the realm of intellect may seem a withdraw from the physical, Kabbalah teaches us that this can actually cure the ailment at its root. The reason the cohen needs to be versed in the seemingly non-practical elements of tzara’at, is in order to cure the ailment from a higher source. By studying the laws simply for their own sake, his knowledge can then descend into the simple, practical world to cure the individual’s pain. For the cohen, it did not suffice to look at the mundane dimension alone; he needed to know how to analyze the roots of reality, to expose the various diseases and name them correctly, down to the minutest details of the various shades of white.

The same holds true for journalists everywhere. If there is some motivation that can be gained by hearing of the work Narrative Science is doing, it is that our writing should become more uniquely human. In order to be a great journalist, our interests should be many. Like a person training to become a contestant on Jeopardy, there’s no telling what bit of information will become useful in the future. The joy of writing as a human though, is not simply store-housing non-practical information. Instead, the great writer learns how to weave even those bits of information that seem to be the most tangential, into the careful flow of the narrative story.

But more profound that including interesting observations that a computer may overlook, is the ability to know something that they may never actually come into practice. Like the cohen that knows the four shades of white, in order to rule either “pure” or “impure” accurately, the journalist should also be someone who studies for study’s sake. While the intellectual realm is higher than the emotive or practical realms, it is with this more profound level that great writers operate. Although the writing itself should be practical and accessible, a great writer should pack their work with many layers of meaning.

On the surface, both the computer and journalist alike may appear to be saying the same thing. But like the cohen who, well-versed in the intricacies, is enabled to declare this person “pure” or “impure”; only a well-disciplined journalist can affect true and lasting healing in their readers.

Excerpted and freely adapted from “Making the right diagnosis” by Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh (posted on RabbiGinsburgh.com).

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