In my last two posts I sneered (and sneered again) at the notion that folks at the top of the professional food chain could ever be replaced by a machine. I was cruising along, secure and happy in my ignorance, when a friend sent me an email.(1) “You better click on this link,” said my friend.

Foolishly, I clicked and was instantly transported to the website of something called Narrative Science, Inc., one of those annoying tech startups, this one launched by a couple of professors at Northwestern. I read through the site with mounting horror.

The good professors, it turns out, had created a platform – let’s call it what the infernal thing is, a machine – that “translates raw data into tangible narratives.” This is professor-speak for a machine that is determined to make Masters of the Universe obsolete.

The way Quill works (I think I have this right) is that it uses artificial intelligence schemes – algorithms – to absorb the essence of massive amounts of data, then converts its “understanding” of the data into prose that human beings can easily understand.

Whoa. This sounds suspiciously like what Master of the Universe do.

As chills began running up and down my spine, I read on, riveted by what appeared to be my own professional obituary. I read somewhere – not on the web site – that Quill is so powerful one of its investors is the CIA itself. That means that Quill can absorb trillions of bits and bites of data and spit out, “Wait ‘til you hear what Angela Merkel said to her husband on the phone about that bozo, François Holland.”

The Narrative Science web site claims that, “Quill gives you the power to move beyond the numbers and leverage true insight.” Insight? From a machine? Isn’t there a law against that? Apparently not! More from the web site: “The resulting content is as good or better than your best analyst, and is produced at a scale and speed only possible with technology.”

Hold on here, I must have missed something. Are the good professors talking about replacing the 800-pound gorillas at Lavish Advisors, Inc? Yes! Feast your eyes on this: “Arm your financial advisors with customized portfolio intelligence that prepares them for every client interaction in significantly less time. *** Provide clients with insight and actionable recommendations.” Customized, actionable recommendations? Sayonara, 800-pound gorillas!

As if this isn’t preposterous enough, the web site goes on to assert that a Quill narrative is as insightful and compelling “as if it were written by a skilled writer.” Now, really, that’s beyond the pale. It’s bad enough that the 800-pound gorillas at Lavish Advisors are dead meat, but replacing skilled writers? Skilled writers – not your humble scrivener, of course, but seriously skilled writers – operate at the very apex of human capacity.

These giants absorb what we used to call “human experience” but now refer to as incomprehensibly vast data and non-data (what didn’t happen, like the dog that didn’t bark,(2) is often as important as what did happen) and produce compelling language – prose, poetry, postitos(3) – that enables the rest of us ordinary folks to see farther than we’d seen before. But that was then and this is now: Got Big Data? Got bad understanding? Get Quill.

If Quill is planning to replace skilled writers with a machine, as it nonchalantly plans to do, I say it’s time to make a stand. What would Shakespeare have said? How about Dante? Milton? Danielle Steel? (Ok, forget Danielle Steel.) Would they sit idly by and allow themselves to be replaced by some stupid machine? No!

And don’t think you, hypocrite lecteur, are somehow exempt from being, as the Brits like to say, “made redundant.” No, no, no, the bell is also tolling for all you superlawyers, superexecs, superprofs, superbankers, superdocs, etc., all soon to be consigned to the dustbin of history.(4)

The question, of course, is what are we going to do about this? I know what you’re thinking, fellow Masters (actually, ex-Masters) of the Universe: we need to march on Narrative Science’s offices over there on East Wacker and smash Quill into bread pudding. Hell, it worked for Ned Ludd back a few years ago.(5) But I’m afraid it would be a big waste of time. You see, Quill is only one of a growing number of annoying tech startups building artificial intelligence platforms designed to replace us all.(6)

So is it all over, my top-of-food-chain friends? Shall we just shuffle off into the sunset, sinking gently into that long good night?(7)

No! Ex-alpha competitors of the world, take heart! I’ve just organized an advocacy group called CLULESS! – Contemporary Luddites United against Losing Everything Sometime Soon! We’ll lobby the US Government to protect us from competition by the machine, then retire on corporate-welfare sinecures. Interested? Send your membership fee in today! (How much is it, you say? Well, honestly, if you have to ask…(8))

 

(1) It was that damned Rodger Morrow.

(2) The “curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” From the Sherlock Holmes story, “Silver Blaze,” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

(3) For readers new to my blog, a postito is an art form that falls into that vast empty space between War and Peace and a tweet from Miley Cyrus.

(4) But not you superplumbers. Tom Handler, a Chicago lawyer, tells this story. He had to come home from work early one day to meet the plumber. The guy was supposed to show up at Noon  but didn’t roll in until almost 3 p.m. He worked for two hours and then handed Tom the bill. Outraged, Tom exclaimed, “I’m a lawyer and I don’t charge this much!” “Yeah,” said the plumber, “When I was a lawyer I didn’t charge that much, either.”

(5) Well, it worked for awhile. Unfortunately for Ned, his activities led directly to the Frame Breaking Act, passed by Parliament in 1812, which made attacks against machines punishable by, um, death.

(6) E.g., Yseop, Inc. in Dallas and Automated Insights in North Carolina. Not six blocks from my house, perched fearsomely on the campus of CMU, is a black, disquieting structure known as the “Darth Vader Building.” I have no doubt whatsoever that inside those dark halls professors are already building software platforms that will someday obsolete the machines that are today obsoleting people. Poetic justice, I say.

(7) “Do not go gentle into that good night./Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Those are the last two lines of a poem by Dylan Thomas, with whom my friend, Richard Eberhart, once got drunk at a place called the White Horse Tavern(i). According to Eberhart, there was also a lady there who had simply wandered in off the street. Being an earnest fellow who once remarked that, “If some wound in the soul were healed, we would have no need to write poetry,” Eberhart pleaded, “Dylan, what compels a man to write poetry?” “I’m in it for the money,” Thomas said.

(i) Can footnotes have footnotes? Of course! As far as I know, the White Horse Tavern is still down there on Hudson Street in New York. Thomas was probably its most famous patron, but the all-time record for getting thrown out of the place is still held by Jack Kerouac.

(8) Funds can be wired to my account, c/o CLULESS!, Banque Privée AG, Vaduz, Liechtenstein. Swiss francs, please.

 

Next up: What’s Your Portfolio Worth?

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Please note that this post is intended to provide interested persons with an insight on the capital markets and is not intended to promote any manager or firm, nor does it intend to advertise their performance. All opinions expressed are those of Gregory Curtis and do not necessarily represent the views of Greycourt & Co., Inc., the wealth management firm with which he is associated. The information in this report is not intended to address the needs of any particular investor.