Would you trust an algorithm to write advertising copy?
A view from Russell Davies

Would you trust an algorithm to write advertising copy?

How many robots have you got working for you?

Lots, probably. I guess it depends how you define a robot. Some people would include dishwashers as robots; some wouldn't. Some people wouldn't include software agents in their definition of a robot. Those people aren't going to like this piece, because that's what I'm going to write about - all those little bits of software that run our lives and make things easier for us. Or that will really screw with us.

At the beginning of August, a US financial services company called Knight Capital released a robot of its own - a high-frequency trading algorithm. By the end of the day, Knight Capital was $440 million worse off. The algorithm had ripped through the New York Stock Exchange doing all sorts of very odd deals, causing massive disruption. To this day, no-one really knows what happened.

In September, the science-fiction world held its most prestigious awards - the Hugos. These are big in the science-fiction world, which is the whole world, so the organisers decided to stream them live on the web via a service called Ustream. (If you do any live-streaming, there's a big chance you use Ustream.) Just as Neil Gaiman was getting an award for a Doctor Who script, the feed went dead and was replaced with a caption about copyright infringement. The stream never came back.

It subsequently emerged that an automatic "content identification system" had spotted promotional clips from Doctor Who - which were supplied by the BBC and had been cleared for this use - and had decided to close the whole thing down. It might have been possible for a human to turn the feed back on, but someone probably decided to go with the robotic decision.

Why does this matter to you? Because, if you're lucky, these kinds of robots will soon be working for you. If you're not lucky, they'll be taking your job.

There's a company called Nimble Combinatorial Publishing. Give its software a three-word concept and it'll go away and generate a book for you. And put it on sale. Right now, it takes the text it uses from Wikipedia (it's early days, the product's still in alpha), but you can see where that might go.

There's a service called PlaceLocal that will automatically generate ads for you - and you can see the appeal from its sales pitch: "No waiting 48 hours for outsourced designers." This sort of thing has been knocking around for a while; they're probably already buying some of your media.

I mention these because the high-frequency traders wandered rather carelessly into this world and now they can't get out. And I'd hate it if you had to explain to your client that a robot ate their campaign.