Imagine lots of real people improving your copy in an anonymous, virtual world

How do you know I'm a human? Or how do you know a human is writing this? Maybe this is all being generated by an algorithm.

It’d be a pretty ballsy algorithm to raise the idea in this way, but that’s the kind of cunning algorithms have. Or perhaps it’s more complicated than that. Maybe this is being typed by a human but being checked by a crowd of anonymous people embedded in a piece of software.

That’s actually the more likely scenario. Have a quick Google for an MIT project called Soylent. It describes itself as a "word processor with a crowd inside". A few years ago, Amazon developed Mechanical Turk – a system that lets you commission tiny bits of work from online workers scattered around the world. Small tasks are parcelled out to people at the other end of an internet connection and they get micro-payments for their digital labour. Soylent builds on that to extend the tools available inside Microsoft Word – giving it the ability to do real proofreading, real editing, to get actual people to check your document. So you don’t get those tin-eared green and red lines appearing under some perfectly correct statement or completely cromulent word. You get real humans reading and correcting your document – but with the anonymity and distance of a mechanical, software-based process.

Why would there ever be a finished set of copy? It could just mutate to reflect changing tastes and efficacy

You don’t have to imagine very hard to see where this might take us. Right now, it’s a document being crowd-checked for mistakes; pretty soon, it’s a piece of copy with thousands of people beefing up its persuasiveness. Type "My car is great" and watch it evolve into "The ultimatest driving machine" (there are bound to be teething problems). The first draft, the approvals, the research and the finished copy all living within the same macro on the same screen. Actually, why would there ever be a finished set of copy? It could just mutate to reflect changing tastes and efficacy. Maybe it will become self-aware and turn into a haiku before deleting itself in shame.

And just to be clear: I’m not software. If I were software, I’d have a thinner avatar.

Russell Davies is a creative director at Government Digital Services

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