Friday, February 27, 2015

A Robot by any Other Name...

...would still write for the Associated Press



Will Oremus, Slate’s senior technology writer, unpacks the idea of “automated journalism” in “Why Robot?

“The Associated Press has been publishing corporate earnings reports written entirely by computer programs,” he states.

The primary focus of his piece is on the naming of the technology, and the different connotations that are presented with each name. He pushes back against the word “robot” as used by many writers he respects, writers who have written about robot journalists, robot-writing, and articles written by a robot.

“If I were a “robot” journalist,” he says,” I would deftly fill the rest of this post with updated facts and numbers describing the scope and pace of robo-journalism. Instead, my quixotic human brain has led me to focus on a question of semantics: Are the computer programs that are writing the AP’s news stories really robots? And if not, why do even the most careful of writers keep calling them that?”

Obviously, we are to understand that Oremus, himself, is clearly not a robot. His use of the allusion to Don Quixote in his naming of his own brain identifies him as truly human, and full of the idealism, sentimentality, irrationality, and impracticality that separates the human from the machine. Oremus then sets out to idealistically, rationally, and practically (without sentimentality) analyze what this writing technology should be named, and why so many people are insisting on naming it what it is not.

Robbie Allen, the CEO of Automated Insights (the company behind this writing technology), calls it “software.” “It’s funny,” he says… “I mean, they know it’s all software, right?”

And yet Automated Insights has released the following video, clearly understanding in their PR department that this concept of “robot” is alive and kicking.

Oremus goes on to define for us what a robot truly is, including the history of the word and the current definitions of the word. He tells us that the word robot comes from the Czech word robota, meaning “forced labor.” It is “A machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer.”

This article-writing program is not a machine, clearly. Therefore, it is logically not a robot. So what is it? Oremus asks leading industry experts for a better name.

Chris Anderson, co-founder and CEO of 3D Robotics and former editor-in-chief of Wired names this writing technology a bot: a software application that runs automated tasks over the Internet.

The chief technology officer for iRobot (maker of the Roomba) names it a software agent.

Kris Hammond, chief scientist at Narrative Science, names it “artificial intelligence platform.”

So Oremus goes back to Allen at Automated Insights and pushes for a better name. Allen comes up with “Automated Insights’ Wordsmith platform”...or...“a natural-language generation platform called Wordsmith.”

Oremus and Allen haggle it out and finally decide on the word software. “Software is writing AP stories,” Oremus finally declares.

So why, he asks, is everyone calling it a robot? What is it about this technology that makes us want to name it something other than software? His answer is two-fold. First, the name “robot” makes us click the link. When writers have to get readers, they have to get the readers to click; they get paid by the click. We all know what software is, and software is not sexy. It doesn’t get our heart racing. But a robot: a robot is an entity. And this is the second part of his answer. “The term carries a lot of pop-cultural baggage,” he states. His personification of the term, allowing it to carry emotional baggage, makes it an entity, just a little too close to being human.

In addition, the idea of a robot as an entity that can do what we humans do heightens the drama of us versus them. Robots will take our jobs. Robots will replace us. Robots will malfunction in some sort of Maximum Overdrive dystopia.

Oremus ends his piece juxtaposing the idea that this writing software has not, in fact, created a reduction in human staff at the Associated Press, but has opened up the writers to more creative projects, leaving the boring stuff to the software; and yet, he reminds us, we must be prepared for the change, for the elimination of jobs, and for the eventual rewriting of our roles.

Oremus’ insistence on finding an accurate and rational name for the AP writing software belies his warning at the end. He is, in fact, quixotic, both tilting at the robot windmill and simultaneously arguing that the windmill is simply misnamed. It seems that he has missed the point in using the obvious reference in the title of his piece “Why, Robot” to I, Robot, the Isaac Asimov short story collection. Asimov’s Three Laws state:
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

The naming of the technology may lessen or heighten our human emotional reactions to it; but the creation, control, and ethical use of the technology is and will continue to be up to the human beings who live with it.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

NCLB should be LB...

Civil Rights ≠ Standardized Testing

Mark Naison, professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University, and a prominent voice in the fight for public education and civil rights, posted the following note on January 18, 2015 on Facebook and on his blog “Do We Need to Redefine Civil Rights for Students”. In this note, he questions the beliefs behind the 19 civil rights’ groups who have recently endorsed national standardized testing. He believes that these groups are misguided, have misunderstood what the true inequality issues in schools are, and that these groups have been influenced, perhaps even bought out, by corporate funds and corporate propaganda.

The discussion that follows his post on Facebook, both about standardized testing and about civil rights (and the defining/redefining of terms) leads me to seek out other voices, to see what they have to say.

Diane Ravitch, historian of education and Research Professor of Education at New York University (and prominent political voice in the fight for public education and against the Common Core and standardized testing). She posted “Why Did Civil Rights Groups Demand Standardized testing?” on her blog She posts the text of the entire “Shared Civil Rights Principles for the Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act” and also her rebuttal to it.

Ravitch asks two questions in her one-paragraph rebuttal. “After 13 years of federally mandated annual testing, how could anyone still believe that testing will improve instruction and close achievement gaps?” and “How can one look at the results of Common Core testing in Néw York—where 97% of English learners, 95% of children with disabilities, and more than 80% of black and Hispanic students failed to meet the standard of “proficiency”—and conclude that these children are well-served by standardized testing?”  The modality of the helping verbs (could = epistemic modality, expressing judgment of the truth; can = dynamic modality, expressing possibility and ability) forces the reader to agree with her strong stance. The answer to her questions is “no one could” and “no one can.” She eliminates all possibility of argument with her questioning strategy. In addition, she personifies the statement issued by the civil rights groups, (The statement makes assumptions) and she also personifies the tests themselves (Tests measure achievement gaps, they don’t close them.). This personification gives the statement and the tests a life-force, beyond the force of the authorship of the statement and the tests. The statement and the tests they support engender inequality. Most interesting to me, however, is the shortest sentence in the paragraph, almost dead center. “It never closes.” This three-word sentence finishes her explanation of a bell curve This sentence, however, is about more than a bell curve: it’s about the entire achievement gap and the mirroring gap in socioeconomic status and opportunity. It never closes. Syntactically, this sentence stands out for being the shortest, and for being positioned in the center. It expresses an absolute: never. It is the pinnacle statement of her argument, found at the center of it.

I am a Ravitch fan.

It is time to unpack what ideology is present in a news piece that is not overtly meant to preach to my choir.

In The Washington Post’s article “Civil rights groups back standardized testing in No Child Left Behind rewrite,” Emma Brown covers this news item.

The first paragraph states: “A coalition of civil rights groups released a statement Sunday urging Congress to maintain one of the most controversial portions of the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind: the requirement that public schools administer annual standardized tests in math and reading.” In the explanation of the portion of NCLB after the colon, the verb “to require” has been nominalized, so that there is no direct action and therefore no direct object; there is also no agency requiring the tests; instead, there is simply a requirement that stands because of this law. This nominalization and removal of controversy is in direct conflict with the declarative sentence before the colon, stating that this portion of the law is in fact “one of the most controversial portions.” The verbs used and the construction of the verbs provide both urgency and legitimacy to the civil rights groups’ position. They “released a statement” (as opposed to simply “stated”); the statement “urg[ed]” Congress; and Congress should “maintain,” signalling a status quo position.

The article continues: “The statement came the day before U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was scheduled to stake out the same position in a speech at an elementary school in the District, highlighting a key battle line in the effort to rewrite the 2002 law.” The complicated verb structure removes responsibility from Arne Duncan. He “was scheduled” to “stake out” the same position. Some other agency scheduled him, giving him passivity in this scene. The metaphor, “to stake out” implies that he is not actually taking a position, but rather staking one out, as one would stake out a piece of property before they actually owned it, built a home on it, and lived on it. As this law was written in 2002, it is interesting that he would have to “stake out” the position that has been enacted in law for over a decade. If the law exists, and his position is to reenact the law, the implication that he was moving into new territory is a misnomer. This isn’t new territory. This is an old law. There is nothing to “stake out.”

The third paragraph states: “No Child Left Behind expired in 2007 and efforts to revise it have stalled on Capitol Hill. But Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. education secretary who is now chairman of the Senate education committee, has pledged to move quickly to rewrite the measure. Alexander has said he is considering whether to jettison the exams, which are administered to students in grades three through eight and once in high school.”  The word “jettison” in the second sentence is a very telling metaphor. To jettison is to drop cargo from a ship or plane, in order to lighten the load. A google search of this statement brings no clarity on if these words are a direct quote from Alexander, or if they are a paraphrase of his position. Regardless, the implication of considering whether or not to jettison the exams presents the idea that rewriting NCLB is a sinking ship, one which must be saved by the sacrifice of the exams.

In the fourth paragraph, Brown writes: “The testing requirement has come under fire from a strange-bedfellows movement of teachers unions, parents and conservative lawmakers who argue that the exams represent an overreach by the federal government that has turned schools into one-dimensional test-prep institutions. And tests do not address child poverty, which many critics of the legislation consider the root cause of continued achievement gaps between poor and affluent students.” The syntax of the second sentence creates ambiguity. Starting the sentence with the coordinating conjunction “and” implies that the sentence is a continuing thought from the previous sentence. However, the previous sentence discusses the “strange-bedfellows movement of teachers unions, parents, and conservative lawmakers” and their argument against the exams. It is not clear if the “strange-bedfellows movement” (a curious descriptor, first coined by Shakespeare in The this meant to be an allusion?) also argues that the tests do not address child poverty, or if this is the belief of Brown herself. The sentence structure causes the reader to attribute the poverty argument to the anti-testing movement, but the actual speaker of that belief is left unclear.

The article then quotes Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, who wrote: “Kids who are not tested end up not counting,” as an explanation of the position of the coalition of civil rights groups. In her statement, the kids are being acted on, thus underscoring the idea that the kids have no power. Another way to write this sentence is “Kids who do not take the test do not count,” which makes the kids active, not passive. However, as the civil rights groups are arguing that the implementation of the standardized tests and the subsequent “yawning achievement gaps” that these test scores have “unmasked” have “forced all states and school districts to focus on serving poor and minority students, including those with disabilities,” their argument that the tests are forcing states and schools to do right by students, needs to present the kids as being “acted on” and not acting. It is incredibly interesting that the civil rights groups believe that the testing has “unmasked yawning achievement gaps”; achievement gaps have not been hidden or secret. Standardized tests didn’t suddenly “unmask” them. Attributing the “unmasking” of the gaps to the tests ignores the decades of court cases leading up to and following Brown versus Board of Education. As a reader, I have to callously ask: do these civil rights groups not understand their own history?

The civil rights coalition also “wants Congress to continue requiring states to take action against schools that do not meet performance targets or close achievement gaps among groups of students.” Interestingly, Brown continues: “Under No Child Left Behind, such struggling schools have been subject to consequences ranging from firing staff members to closing and reopening as a charter school, actions that critics have said are overly punitive and disruptive and often do not improve student achievement.” This statement  demonstrates transitivity and passive voice. The agency has been removed in this sentence and the staff members, schools, and student achievement have become objects, acted on by an unseen force. To change this to an active construction, Brown would have to write the following: “Staff members are fired in struggling schools. Schools are closed and reopened as charter schools. Student improvement does not improve when staff members are fired and schools are closed.”  In the original sentence, all agency and ownership of the action is removed; it’s just “happening” under NCLB.

The article finishes with a list of things the coalition wants: pre-K access for poor children, and equal access to technology, alternate forms of discipline instead of suspension and expulsion, and a requirement that schools report how and when they involve the police and refer cases to the police. The article ends, almost as an afterthought, with the statement that  the coalition takes no position on the using of student test scores in teacher evaluations.

Although Emma Brown does not blatantly state her position on NCLB or on the statement released by the civil rights coalition, she does show a lack of support for NCLB policy through her use of direct quotes, her juxtaposition of her statements following coalition statements, and her portrayal of the removal of agency. The coalition statements she uses highlights their misguided support of this very flawed law.

I am heartened to read Brown’s presentation of this topic. NCLB is flawed, and the current push for standardized testing is a travesty for our students and our schools. Brown has a platform on which to present to the public the information they need to have: that standardized testing does not help students, and the subsequent “reforms” brought about by the testing are harming the very students they are meant to help.

Graphic of Mark Naison used with permission.