Skip to Content

Every Spreadsheet Has a Narrative to Tell—Just Add Some AI

To make sense of data, we are teaching computers to speak our language.
November 7, 2017
Justin Saglio

Every day, we export 2.5 quintillion bytes of data out of our ubiquitous machines. This data comes in forms from million-row spreadsheets to photos of local coffee shops. It is filled with information, but most of it is not naturally in a form humans can understand. Kris Hammond, chief scientist and cofounder of Narrative Science, is transforming this data into language.

“Language by itself is miraculous and uniquely human,” Hammond told the audience at EmTech MIT on Tuesday. “You can teach a dog things; crows use tools; beavers use dams. There is no other creature that uses language the way we use language. Although machines use words, they struggle with language.”

Humans innately connect complex ideas in our heads, Hammond said, because of our experience with language. Enabling machines to communicate using the same language as we do becomes ever more critical as machines become a larger part of our lives.

Narrative Science is using AI to teach machines this human skill. Its software, Quill, can take data like the box score of a baseball game, summarize the content, and extract a “narrative” from it (see “Who Will Own the Robots?”). Now, instead of staring at a bewildering compilation of numbers, you can view an easy-to-read paragraph telling you what you need to know.

“We have struggled with data for a long time. We shouldn’t be struggling with it; the machine should be presenting it to us,” Hammond said.

The city of Chicago has taken this approach to synthesize data about miles of its shorelines. It records data on numerous beaches and creates cumbersome spreadsheets. Using Quill, the city boils the information in the spreadsheets down to digestible statements indicating the best and worst beaches in the city.

Turning data into language can also benefit businesses and their customers.

“Most people who have jobs don’t also want to look at data and find out what’s going on,” Hammond said. “You don’t want to hand data to people who run the deli. You take that exact same data and turn it into reports to give them advice about what they might be able to do next.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

individual aging affects covid outcomes concept
individual aging affects covid outcomes concept

Anti-aging drugs are being tested as a way to treat covid

Drugs that rejuvenate our immune systems and make us biologically younger could help protect us from the disease’s worst effects.

close up of baby with a bottle
close up of baby with a bottle

The baby formula shortage has birthed a shady online marketplace

Desperate parents just want to feed their babies. They’re having to contend with misinformation, price gouging, and scams along the way.

"Olive Garden" NFTs concept
"Olive Garden" NFTs concept

I tried to buy an Olive Garden NFT. All I got was heartburn.

Our newest issue spells out what you need to know about the dizzying world of digital money.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.