For a guy who is a regular contributor to blog, the notion of “words as a service” (WaaS) conjures up some rather profound and poignant thoughts. Is there a word “robot” out there, and is it going to take my job? Where does it get its narrative? Doubtlessly many of you have heard the story of Summly, a groundbreaking and innovative artificial intelligence technology used for text summarization. Summly was founded by Australian Nick D’Aloisio, and sold to Yahoo! in 2013 for a reported $30 million. Oh, and – D’Aloisio happened to be 15 years old at the time, and earning him rights to the veritable “Silicon Valley Whiz-Kid” moniker in extremis. And making me – and also others, doubtlessly – wonder: why didn’t we think of that? Just exactly what was it about the decidedly-whimsical, “yellow-highlighter” performance of Microsoft Word’s “Auto Summarize” applet in Word that dazzled us into believing that no further innovation was required? Clearly, Nick D’Aloisio was not among our number… heck, he probably wasn’t even born yet when the AutoSummarize algorithm was hatched in Redmond…).
In sum, Summly, and the higher order of intelligent automation it represents – e.g., this is not your father’s Cliffs Notes - is cool. But we’re seeing the effect of “words as a service” in other sectors as well. Take a player like Narrative Science. These guys are effectively the “the Summly” of data analysis/meaning-making within chosen industries – especially in Financial Services, marketing and research. For years, analysts have been tasked with the essential job of taking data, and presenting their findings, and please: “Net it out!” This is especially the case where structured data/reporting is currently being currently compiled by hand. But Narrative Science takes it one step further, and actually writes up a report – in prose – of what the structured data is trying to convey, either in spreadsheet, table, or database formats. Now that’s a cool - and helpful – robot, that taken to its extreme, can have a profound impact on every industry from pharma, to writing prescription regimens for patients, to financial statements and stock performance, even up to and including turning the baseball box-score into a sports page leader article. ESPN SportsCenter writers, get your resumes and Linked-In profiles ready. And it’s not just Narrative Science or Summly – other players of this ilk are also burgeoning, like France’s Yseop, which is attracting attention for its artificial intelligence and natural language software from players in the financial services space – especially wealth management, related to stock performance.
We have written extensively of the importance of businesses to separate signal from noise in their advanced analytics programs – to find and make meaning among the (growing) torrent of data that now inundates nearly all businesses in the 21st century. But in the case of players like Summly and Narrative Science, it’s the same idea, but with a slightly different twist. For these players, it comes down to the power of words to communicate the essential details that we need to know – and the nuanced power that words can bring to tell a story and narrative, where numbers alone don’t do justice. It’s almost the reverse of conventional analytics and BI programs – where quants are paid to find “the killer numbers”, in the right combination. Sometimes numbers can only take you so far – say to the tune of $30 million for WaaS.