Guest Post: Could Software Perform Technical Writing? by Robert Desprez
The following is a guest post by Robert Desprez, a technical writer in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
For years, we’ve been hearing that the work of technical writers may be commoditized and that jobs are being offshored, the process where knowledge-based positions are re-located to lower-wage countries. Well educated and highly paid jobs such as a lawyers, accountants, radiologists, and information technology workers, including technical writers, have been displaced to countries such as India.
Now there’s another threat on the horizon. In the book titled Rise of the Robots, author Martin Ford argues that many jobs may disappear in the coming years due to advances in technology. Martin provides the following examples:
- The already vulnerable manufacturing industry is at risk when it comes to advances in automation. According to one analysis, China, one country that has benefited from an influx of low-wage manufacturing positions, has lost 15 percent of its manufacturing jobs between 1995 and 2002 due to advances in automation.
- In the U.S. and other developed countries, millions of people work in the service sector, including retail jobs and fast-food positions. Momentum Machines, a San Francisco start-up, has developed a machine that automates the production of hamburgers, including shaping the patties, grilling them, toasting the buns, and adding fresh ingredients including tomatoes, onions, and pickles. The hamburgers can then be delivered to eager customers, using a conveyor belt. A Momentum Machines co-founder is blunt about the company's objectives: "Our device isn't meant to make employees more efficient…It's meant to completely obviate them." Later in the book, Ford reports that McDonald's announced that it would install touch screen systems at 7,000 of its European restaurants, potentially reducing the need for staff. Ford writes: "Given all this, I think it is quite easy to imagine that a typical fast food restaurant may eventually be able to cut its workforce by 50 percent, or perhaps even more."
- Even white collar positions are not immune. Ford argues that technology and automation is pruning jobs across industries so that organizations require fewer and fewer staff. Companies like Google are known to be excellent employers, whether it's for their good pay, stellar benefits, and the free gourmet lunches. But for all their influence and enviable profitability, these companies are not hiring as many workers as you might expect. Ford writes, "In 2012, Google, for example, generated a profit of $14 billion while employing fewer than 38,000 people. Contrast that with the automotive industry. At peak employment in 1979, General Motors alone had nearly 840,000 workers but earned only about $11 billion—20 percent less than what Google raked in. And, yes, that's after adjusting for inflation."
- As software algorithms become sophisticated and powerful, we may just see more sweeping effects on knowledge-based jobs. Ford writes: "As Netscape co-founder Marc Andreesen famously said, 'Software is eating the world.' More often than not, that software will be hosted in the cloud. From that vantage point, it will eventually be poised to invade virtually every workplace and swallow up nearly every white-collar job that involves sitting in front of a computer manipulating information."
Although Ford doesn’t specifically mention technical writers, he does provide examples of how technology already exists that is supplanting journalists. Narrative Science’s technology is used by media outlets, including Forbes, to produce automated articles, including those in sports, business, and politics. Narrative Science’s software reportedly generates a new story every 30 seconds. Other media outlets may also be using the software but may be reluctant to admit it, given that it could be killing jobs in an industry already ravaged by the disruptive effects of technology.
More concerning for technical writers, Narrative Science isn’t limiting itself to journalism. The company’s technology can also produce reports for both internal and external audiences across different industries. The software can collect data from sources including databases, financial and sales reporting systems, web sites, and social media. It then analyzes the data to understand the most important content and then writes a document. Outside of the media, the company’s clients include MasterCard, Deloitte, and In-Q-Tel, an arm of the Central Intelligence Agency.
In his book, Ford writes: “Writing — which, after all, is at least as much art as it is science — might seem like one of the least likely tasks to be automated. Nevertheless, it has been, and the algorithms are improving rapidly. Indeed, because knowledge-based jobs can be automated using only software, these positions, may, in many cases, prove to be more vulnerable than lower-skilled jobs that involve physical manipulation.”
He also cites a 2013 study by researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne at the University of Oxford who analyzed more than 700 occupations and predicted how likely these jobs will be susceptible to “computerisation.” Frey and Osborne found that 47 percent of jobs are at risk.
I downloaded the study and it identifies technical writing as one of the careers considered “computerisable” or at high risk of being automated by software. Other careers that are considered high risk include real estate brokers, roofers, and even certain types of sales jobs.
The silver lining is that if automation becomes more ubiquitous, it will not happen overnight. But technical writers who have no niches — whether it is specific domain knowledge or skills that are considered a key differentiator — may be at risk.
In an economy that is already characterized by listless job growth and offshoring, Martin Ford’s book offers an unsettling but necessary read for anyone who is interested in technology and managing one’s career in the coming years.
Robert Desprez has worked as a Vancouver technical writer for more than 15 years in British Columbia, Canada. He regularly blogs about writing for smartphones, tablets, and PCs.