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The independent London newspaper

Crossword compiler fears robot takeover

Marc Breman says Artificial Intelligence will one day create cryptic wordplays better than humans

02 March, 2018 — By Biba Kang

Marc Breman has a new novel out  – The Foggiest Notion

SINCE 1991, Marc Breman has been carefully crafting brain-teasing crosswords for major national newspapers.

The 56-year-old crossword compiler, who lives in Maida Vale, takes great pride in his puzzles, believing that a good crossword should be full of “personality, penchants and foibles”.

But now Mr Breman fears for his niche industry as artificial intelligence becomes more advanced.

He believes it’s only a matter of time before human crossword creators are replaced by robots.

He said: “The writing is very much on the wall for crossword compilers, and has been for some years.”

Despite having written more than 30,000 puzzles for papers including the Evening Standard, Daily Mirror, Daily Express and Sunday Telegraph, Mr Breman believes that within 15 to 20 years he’ll be edged out of his profession by technological developments. He warns that we “cannot compete against the march of the machines”.

Thirty years ago a crossword compiler could earn up to £35 per hour. Since then, wages have fallen, as the arrival of the internet brought with it a number of online databases, where millions of words and synonyms could be generated at the touch of a button.

Computer programmes can create a 15 x 15 grid within seconds. Mr Breman is part of a dwindling group of compilers – there are less than one hundred left in Britain.

He said the profession continues because crosswords still benefit from touches of human wit. Puns, anagrams and cryptic wordplays are outside the remit of robots.

But Mr Breman still fears that advances in AI, and the development of artificial personality, will eventually render human compilers defunct.

That’s why many cross- word aficionados are branching out into different literary fields. Mr Breman, who stresses that “the importance of diversification – and a willingness to turn your hand to something new – has never been more necessary,” has published his first book.

The Foggiest Notion is a surreal novel about crossword puzzles. It features actual 15×15 grids for readers to solve, and clues are presented to the characters as part of the plot. This innovative nov- el is an attempt to remain one step ahead of technology.

And it’s not just crossword compilers who are in danger. Mr Breman reminds us: “However much we may dislike the idea, Britain and the world generally are moving towards full automation where a wide variety of jobs will be taken by robots.”

We can only hope that “personality, penchants and foibles” will save us, when our time finally comes.

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