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A Former Clickhole Writer Made a ‘Content Bot’ That Will Probably Become My Boss

It’s already won a comedy competition and is currently applying to be Poet Laureate for the city of Redmond, Washington.

Claire Downs

Image: Bas Nastassia/Shutterstock

The following article was written by the human Claire Downs with no AI assistance.

I've chuckled foolishly to myself, as reports of job-stealing automatons inevitably have surfaced, "I'm a writer. The robots aren't taking my job!" My confidence has further been bolstered by outlets like Business Insider and NPR, which reassured me that "creative work" would be bot-proof. But then I came across Botnik, a content bot that uses predictive algorithms to write articles, scripts, and jokes that are actually pretty damn good.

"Botnik harnesses the creativity of human brains to augment the natural reality of computers," co-founder Jamie Brew told me over email.

More specifically, Botnik uses people-written material as a corpus, or source text to create a predictive keyboard that offers word choices to human writers. Botnik's editorial processors then optimize the output before it is published online. The AI's guidance removes pitfalls like word choice and writer's block, in theory, but the technology comes with a price: relying on existing work to create new content, and using humanity to make sure the bot's words make sense. In a way, Botnik isn't simply poised to take over certain online writing gigs. Writers and editors would have to work for the bot and collaborate with their new AI overtaker, too.

The Claire Downs Motherboard predictive keyboard.

Botnik's versatile writing "career" has already reached levels that can take writers years of honing their craft to reach. Earlier this month, the company pitted its hybrid algorithm against a team of purely human contributors at online comedy website Funny or Die in a paid joke writing contest with the prompt "Yelp Reviews From a Malfunctioning Robot." After reviewing the jokes, blindly submitted by both the FoD writing staff and by Botnik, FoD editors selected their top 10 funniest jokes. Four were from humans. The remaining six were written by Botnik.

The algorithm has also completed a spot-on Seinfeld script, an unintentionally funny X-Files episode, an animated Dear Abby column, and has composed some pretty great tweets:

Of course, it's difficult to imagine Botnik's "achievements" would be possible without people with specialized skillsets in its human-machine collaboration. Bob Mankoff, Botnik's co-founder, is the current humor editor at Esquire and former cartoon editor of The New Yorker. And you may recognize Brew as the former head writer of Clickhole, the Onion's clickbait parody website. Botnik is part of the Amazon Accelerator Program, which offered grants to startups whose technology can ultimately improve Amazon's smart speaker assistant, Alexa.

I asked Brew why someone who'd made a living as a comedy writer would create a bot to do the work for him and others.

"There is already a lot of content online. We don't need any more," Brew wrote in an email. "Our idea is to take the good content we already have and just sort of move it around using algorithms." Describing the process as "recycling" and "remixing," Brew added that he hadn't considered Botnik's potential to replace human writers, joking, "It's a problem, but nothing a robot can't solve."

By way of example, Brew had Botnik write a paragraph in the style of me. He fed every article I've written for this here website into the algorithm and created a "Claire Downs Motherboard" keyboard. Here's what the content bot, mimicking yours truly, came up with:

A computer can solve the puzzle of our Florida accent. We're having a good relationship with gator squad as users simply post dignity to the entire Internet. Believe it. The iPhone X's fingerprint unlocking technology is aimed at farmers on Reddit. Futuristic love will be a paid app shitposting on social media.

I'll admit that none of the above, on first read, makes a ton of sense. Yet the voice is definitely within the Claire Downs oeuvre. Believe it.

Botnik has been entered into this week's New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest, according to Brew, and is currently composing its application for Poet Laureate for the City of Redmond, Washington. Rita Dove, the youngest United States Poet Laureate, was 40 when she was appointed in 1992. Botnik, created this past summer, is a something like a prodigy at three months old. Hey, success is a different path for everybody.

As for Brew, he asked me to relay a message to content makers everywhere: "If you're working on something good, please finish it up and post to the internet. Botnik can take it from there and you all can enjoy a well-deserved break." Botnik's public site launches today.

Unfortunately, my well-worn human fingers had to type this piece without Botnik's guidance. Frankly, I'm OK with that. I'm not ready to share bylines or my cents-per-word with a bot that couldn't even use the money to buy pizza, much less eat it and enjoy it. After all, Ernest Hemingway said, "There is nothing to writing. All you have to do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

Or, take it from me, in the words of an inspirational quote I came up with using my personalized Botnik keyboard: "Writing the internet is solving each other's love workings."

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