AI and the Case of the Disappearing Textbooks; Maybe the Writers are Next

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Artificial Intelligence is making the transition to electronic-only publishing a necessity for textbook publishers. (GETTY)

By AI Trends Staff

Pearsons, one of the largest textbook publishing companies in the world, is getting out of the print business, according to a recent account in Forbes. This is very much along the lines of Ford Motor Company announcing recently that they will stop producing cars. While the jury is still out on whether the latter is a good idea, in many respects. the decision by Pearsons has been inevitable for a while.

It is a matter of economics. Traditionally, when a publisher commissions a book, what they are doing is making a bet that the book will return its total investment costs by a significant amount.

Textbooks are an interesting quandary in the publishing world. The cost of actually creating the original content for the textbook is a comparatively small percentage of the overall costs, but for a textbook, those other costs – securing the rights for images or commissioning them outright, editing the content, indexing, prepress, printing, promoting and distributing can mean that most textbooks can cost between $50,000 and $100,000 to make, and some can end up costing more than a million dollars.

What makes this even more of a risk is that a given textbook’s primary audience is students. For secondary education and below, this cost is ameliorated by a school district buying the books for use by all of the schools within the district. For college textbooks, on the other hand, the publisher is reliant upon individual teachers deciding to buy their particular book for a class. Either way, the audience is comparatively small by publishing standards, which is one of the reasons that the cost of textbooks tends to be higher than it is for general entertainment content.

The rise of digital publishing, the Internet and increasingly AI have completely upended that equation. Until comparatively recently, those students represented a captive audience – if they wanted to take the class, they had to buy (or have someone subsidize the buying of) the textbooks. Because this created a (larger) market, the cost per book including profit was lower, though still high by book cost standards.

The Internet (and most notably Amazon) ate away at the distribution side, initially by making it easier to sell slightly used books at a considerably lower cost point that (from the publisher’s perspective) was money not coming to them. Publishers were forced into a position of rasing the prices of books to eke out ever-smaller margins. This pushed the costs of textbooks into the stratosphere, which is where the second whammy hit publishers like Pearsons.

Professors were faced by uprisings from students already faced with crippling student loans and began to use more and more material from the Internet (or publishing their own works to the Internet). Not only was it far less expensive, but the professor could teach their students what was important to them, not what was important to the publishers.

Automating the Writing – Writer is a Robot

Meanwhile, while the print publisher is ceasing printing, other publishers are looking to automate the writing, to in effect, make the writer a robot.

Robot reporters are generating lots of copy at Boomberg.
(Credit: Cam Cottrill)

AI has made forays into the print media, starting with the more rote aspects of journalism, according to an account in What’s New in Publishing.

Cyborg, as it is named, accounts for an estimated one-third of the content published by Bloomberg News. It is able to examine financial reports as soon as they are available, and create news stories featuring the most pertinent information. And it can do this faster and more accurately than a human reporter – most of whom would usually find this type of work sleep-inducing. Layoffs of reporters and editors have resulted.

Elsewhere, the Associated Press and The Washington Post have been using AI to produce articles for minor league baseball and high school football respectfully. The Los Angeles Times has reported using robot reporters to write about earthquakes.

Journalism executives are quick to point out that this does not spell an end to human journalism. Publishers leading the way in this new era say the AI will allow journalists to spend more time on more practical work; AI should be seen as part of the toolbox.

Lisa Gibbs, director of news partnerships for The Associated Press, says, “The work of journalism is creative, it’s about curiosity, it’s about storytelling, it’s about digging and holding governments accountable, it’s critical thinking, it’s judgment — and that is where we want our journalists spending their energy.”

Lisa Gibbs, director of news partnerships for The Associated Press.

We seem to be on the verge of significant advances in AI research in the area of writing thoughtfully, like a human. New systems for analyzing text from Google and OpenAI are attracting interest.

Open AI’s algorithm, called GPT-2, is currently the most extraordinary example. It is superior at a task referred to as language modelling, which tests a program’s capacity to guess the next words in a sentence. The ability of the algorithm is truly mind-boggling. Give GPT-2 a headline, and it can write the remainder of the article, complete with bogus quotes and statistics.

Recently, Open AI rather dramatically withheld the release of their newest language modeling algorithm, GPT-2 – instead deciding to release a small, simplified version of GPT-2 with its sampling code and research paper for researchers to conduct further experimentation.

Open AI feared that the full release of GPT-2 could see it being used to automate the mass production of misinformation. The decision also accelerated the AI community’s ongoing discussion about how to detect this kind of fake news. Experiments are ongoing to build systems to determine if written material is generated by a human, or by a language model.

Read the source articles in Forbes and in What’s New in Publishing.