Edited by a Computer? Yeah, Right!

Under the category of hard to believe -- and harder to take -- comes a story in The New York Times today that says that computers are now grading essays, and if you get a bad grade, they'll help you do it again and get a better one.

Now, this is certainly not for me!  As someone who can hardly bear an editor's comments, I don't know how I'd feel about having a computer judge my writing.

It's not just computer software that crunches numbers, its stuff that uses artificial intelligence.  But  I still fail to see how a computer can remotely judge writing, and, even more important, foster creativity.

Some if I like, like being able to just push send and your essay goes to the computer.  The really weird thing is that your grade comes back almost immediately, along with help to make the next draft better.  Only, it wasn't a draft.  It was your final effort.

But anyway. . . John Markoff notes that computers have been used for some time to grade multiple-choice tests, and that does make sense.  There's only one answer for those kinds of tests. But to get a computer, no matter how artificially intelligent, to have the smarts to pick out nuances and charming ways of describing things . . .I just can't see it.

The point of the software, Markoff reports, is to let students take essay tests over and over until the quality improves. But isn't that kind of the point of writing, figuring it out on your own?

Call me old-fashioned (some, a Luddite), but how can you learn to write if you are being taught in a systematic, straightforward  way?  Writing is about creativity and flights of fancy and with computers, even Big Blue, the jeopardy winner, not quite getting the points of some things, I despair that this will remove the effort from -- and circumvent those just realizing they're writers.

When my son was in elementary school, I ran the newspaper and it was shocking to me how many truly great writers didn't know they were., or that they even liked to write (after one three-month session, a  student told me she now wanted to become a novelist). 

Is a computer going to inspire these kids?  I think not.

I'm sure there's some good in here somewhere, but I fail to see it.  Good writing is in the eyes of the beholder.  It opens your heart and makes you feel things.  And my God, what it does for the writer.  I remember being asked a long time ago to write down the words I felt identified me.  The first one was writer.  Mom and wife came later.

When I've written something really good, I feel like I've had a good meal, that full and satisfied.  I've found nothing in life, except maybe my son, that can make me feel that way.  I don't always get it when I've written something, but when I do, it's what gives me joy.

And by the same token, when something's not going well -- I just can't get the words to work, what I want to say is not coming out -- it's the sticking at it where you find the reward.  If a computer takes that on, just what exactly do you learn?

So, can computers really do this?   Writng is tough, hard work that, often, reveals beauty.  To have it judged by a box of steel removes all that makes it art. 



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