Artificial Intelligence (AI) is both elusive and everywhere. How can it be both? Blame science fiction and popular culture. AI is a frequently misunderstood subset of computer science, and like most technology, we don’t yet know its full potential. HAL 9000 — the sentient AI from Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” — remains a terrifying, and entirely fictional, antagonist.
Elements of AI do exist in everything from your Alexa-enabled smart home to Apple’s Siri, Google’s search engine, tailored social media ads, and — everybody’s favorite — autocorrect. What can AI functionality do for publishing? Is HAL coming for your job, or is AI the secret to working smarter?
What is Artificial Intelligence really?
AI is a branch of computer science. It uses mathematics and programming languages to simulate human thought and behavior. Scientists and engineers have been trying — and failing — to create a true AI for five decades. While no AI has yet conquered the Turing test, attempts have led to complex algorithms for making computers smarter and more responsive to humans. AI research has enabled remarkable advances in technology and computer functionality, including:
- Machine learning (ML). Computer software remembers and leverages prior activity to predict future behavior. Search engines use ML to extrapolate data from previous searches and suggest keywords or phrases for subsequent queries. Amazon’s ML algorithm offers purchase suggestions based on prior spending habits.
- Natural language processing (NLP). Computer applications use NLP to interpret spoken language and reply. Alexa, Siri, and Google enabled devices are equal parts eerie and absurd in their attempts to respond to vocal questions and commands. NLP combines with ML to make these virtual assistants more effective at communicating with users. Virtual assistants learn how users speak and the responses they’re likely to want or expect. As with people, the more you communicate with them, the better your virtual assistant understands you.
- Facial recognition. This is one of AI’s newest contributions to computer science — and arguably allows for its closest simulation of actual human behavior. Does your computer “recognize” you? Facial recognition technology scans and pinpoints human features to match them with a database, much like we search our memory to place a familiar
All this functionality is extraordinary, but at its core, AI is computer science and high-level math combined into algorithms to mimic human thought and behavior. So, what can the “magic” of AI offer the publishing business?
What can Artificial Intelligence do for publishing?
Sheridan’s sister company, KnowledgeWorks Global Ltd. (KGL), predicted AI’s impact on the industry early last year. KGL anticipated practical AI applications implemented to increase discoverability, improve user experience, automate routine tasks, gather data, analyze trends, and expand peer review pools. And then the pandemic hit. With rapid adoption and adaptation, AI proved itself useful during the COVID-19 chaos. Among many other developments, AI helped publishing by:
- Automating proofreading and some copyediting tasks to help carry a suddenly heavier workload.
- Helping with advanced queries and content classification by tagging metadata to improve information access.
- Compiling research materials, locating obscure data faster, and even generating assumptions based on prior research activity.
These are just a few examples of AI’s benefits for publishing, but there is potential for at least one significant downside. AI imitates human behavior when it responds to requests, provides data, and suggests outcomes. It uses ML to learn from human behavior and NLP to build vocabulary and develop syntax, and it is — ultimately — the creation of human beings: “Because humans are at the heart of writing the code or training machines to perform tasks, the technology is reliant on the perspectives and experiences of those individuals creating the algorithms that could inherently lead to unintended bias.”
What’s next for Artificial Intelligence in publishing?
AI-fueled technology has been around for a while. But as with most technology — more than half a century after its conception — it is continuously evolving. The publishing industry should prepare for possible disruptions up to and including AI-generated content.
Could AI really take your job or replace your favorite author? As people eye automated workflows with suspicion, Forbes predicts an algorithm will someday allow an AI provided with an author’s previous work to “generate a book for you in a matter of seconds.” As you ponder the pros and cons of “artificial” authors, consider this: Can a computer be programmed to create, and if so, will it still make deadline?