Kris Hammond is chief scientist and co-founder of Narrative Science, a company that uses an artificial intelligence product called Quill to turn boring data and statistics into highly readable stories with a beginning, middle, and end.
The software can write stories with no bias, confusion, or cherry picking, accurately representing the truth based on the data you give it.
Hammond calls it “the most powerful AI system [he’s] ever built.”
“We looked at the world of media and data as it’s growing today,” he told us over the phone. “We saw the beginnings of dissatisfaction with big data and we saw ourselves as the solution. You don’t want spreadsheets, you want to be told.”
Narrative Science is spun out of technology coming out of Northwestern University, merging engineering and journalism. It’s all about content generation from raw data, using narrative structure as the driver.
The company’s AI product, Quill, can essentially turn numbers into stories: The box score from a baseball game becomes a written report of that game, for example, detailing player performance as if you were reading a sportswriter’s coverage in the newspaper.
Hammond said Quill works so well that it exceeded his team’s expectations.
“That’s rare,” Hammond told Business Insider. “We had a moment of pause and looked at it — what is the scope here?”
In the early days, Hammond said they used their software to “write” about any sport that could be expressed with numbers: baseball, basketball, soccer, and the like. It wasn’t long before they branched out from there.
“We very quickly saw that if you’re an organisation tracking your inventory and inventory waste, what you really want is a report that someone can read to understand waste problems. If you’re doing assessment of your mutual funds, you want to be able to take a look at the decisions that were made, compare against benchmarks, and get a report. If you want to know how your sales team is doing, you don’t have to look through 50 spreadsheets,” he said. “The story is the point, and communication drives analysis of the data. Instead of a report on the data, you can get a report on what the data means.”
Quill turns boring numbers into written communication that seems human and natural — a story — and Hammond says the results are guaranteed to adhere to the truth as defined by the data.
In the near future, Narrative Science will take aim at the financial services industry. “The data is there, and it’s a well-trodden space with respect to data. If you’re managing millions of clients, you want to be able to give them something more than a pie chart,” Hammond said.
Also on the company’s list: the retail industry. How are franchises doing? How are products selling? Hammond says Quill makes the expensive human data scientists interpreting this data today obsolete tomorrow. The company’s non-human software system can do an equally effective deep dive on various stats and tell you what they mean in the same written language that an $US250,000-per-year employee would.
Despite having created a seemingly magic auto-writer, Narrative Science maintains that conventional journalists will still find employment. “We will make [journalists’ jobs] better,” said Hammond. “There are things that humans do that are not yet in [purview] of systems like Quill. They hear facts, they chase down compelling ideas, they reconsider and reestablish what they’re looking for. Quill doesn’t do that, but there will be a time when it does. But by then, you’ll be at the deeper, higher end of your game.”
As for long-term ambitions, Hammond is steadfast: “In my lifetime, this technology is going be such that will eradicate the spreadsheet. Any place where there’s data in a table, Quill will be there look at that data and explain it to you. I look at the spreadsheet and I think it’s going to be like the computer punch card. It’s what we used to use, and there was a time when it was all we had, but that time is over. Who in the world would ever say, ‘I’d rather look at a spreadsheet to find trends and correlations’ when Quill can just do it for you?”
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