The art of imperfection: People are turning to robots to write their 'handwritten' cards

A printing robot begins a sample holiday card. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Mr Roger Byous and his wife Vonita were surprised when an anniversary card from their son arrived in the mail. They were even more surprised by the unrecognisable handwriting inside.

"I just started wondering, 'Whaaat?'" said Mr Roger, 73. "It didn't look quite right, but we couldn't figure out why."

It turned out, the couple later learnt, their son had not picked up the pen that scripted his heartfelt congratulations on 48 years of wedded bliss. A robot had.

"It wasn't exactly a personal touch," Mr Roger said, but "we're glad he remembered us".

Digitisation has long reached deep into people's lives: Family photos are in the cloud. Mum's recipes are indexed on an app. Breakups can arrive overnight, via text.

Now technology is being deployed to try to replicate a human touch, as a growing number of consumers turn to pen-wielding robots that can mimic the loops and patterns of the human hand.

These robot-scribed cards and letters are testing the proposition that machines can generate the intimacy of a handwritten note. Some services include smudges and ink blots in their mailings. Others program the robots to be imprecise - varying the pressure on the pens, for example, or inconsistently sizing characters and spacing - to make the writing appear believably human.

At Handwrytten, a fast-growing service in Phoenix, robots are outfitted with Pilot G2 pens in blue ink because, as founder David Wachs said, it is "more realistic-looking" than black. The pens also offer an advantage over even the most sophisticated printouts: The telltale imprint they leave on paper.

But the results can be clumsy, even unsettling.

Critics bristle at the idea of outsourcing personal correspondence, saying it renders it meaningless. And they see it as one more example of how technology is being used to fake authenticity, even if it does not rise to the level of "deepfakes" or other digital manipulation.

"Having a robot write for you - it's a rather clever business plan, but it seems like a complete betrayal," said Dr Ellen Handler Spitz, a senior lecturer in humanities at Yale University. "Handwritten notes are special precisely because they are intimate, because a part of your body is touching the paper, creating a personal connection."

When the Byouses finally asked their son, Shanan, about the mysterious cursive on their card, he told them he used the Handwrytten app because it was cheaper - and easier - than going to the store, picking out a card and paying for postage. Plus, he said, he liked that he could schedule it ahead of time.

"To me, it's the same, whether a robot writes it or I do," said Mr Shanan Byous, 47, who works for an IT company in Atlanta. "What matters is that I was thinking of them."

Just as well: Two weeks after their anniversary, another robot-written card arrived. This one wished his mother a happy birthday.

The robots are running non-stop at Mr Wachs' Phoenix warehouse, scribbling letters to Grandma, thank-you notes and, these days, holiday cards. Mr Wachs used to make his living blasting millions of targeted text messages for corporate clients, until he became convinced there was a better way to get noticed.

"When you receive 200 e-mail (messages) a day, plus tweets and text messages, none of it stands out anymore unless it's handwritten," he said. "It's become that much harder to get someone's attention."

Today, Mr Wachs has 80 robots, and demand is so brisk that he builds two to three more each week to keep pace with 100,000 pieces of correspondence that go out monthly.

"We started with a basic idea: To figure out how to make sending a handwritten note as easy as sending a text message or e-mail," said Mr Wachs, who founded Handwrittyn in 2014 after selling his mobile marketing agency.

His earliest clients included religious groups urging inmates to find salvation in Jesus, and grown children checking in with mum and dad. As business grew, his clientele extended to include luxury retailers, mortgage brokers, car manufacturers and nonprofit groups that pay about US$3 (S$4) per card.

The holidays are particularly busy, with December accounting for about 15 per cent of the year's sales. Mr Wachs buys pens in packs of 1,452 and Forever stamps in spools of 10,000. Annual revenue, in the millions, is on track to triple this year.

In-house graphic designers create the company's cards, a mix of traditional and cutesy patterns with sayings like "Peace on Earth" and "Cheers to the new year".

As for the writing itself, Handwrytten offers about 20 fonts with names like Executive Adam (all-caps and angular) and Loopy Ruthie (cursive and rounded).

Customers also can have their own handwriting replicated, for US$1,000, by submitting multiple samples that include six versions of the alphabet and nearly a dozen nonsensical sentences like, "Did the keynote pharaoh drop a shoe in Cuba?".

They can also add a real signature (for a one-time fee of US$150), as well as foreign characters, hearts and smiley faces. The company has made about 60 custom fonts - mostly for politicians and business executives.

Mr Wachs, who has degrees in computer science and economics from the University of Pennsylvania, makes the robots with a 3-D printer and laser cutter. But they are slow, he said. It takes four to five minutes to write a typical holiday card, though they offer at least one advantage. "They don't take breaks like humans do."

The robots work 24 hours a day and send Slack messages when they are running out of paper or ink. Attending to their needs can be tedious: Pens dry up after about 150 pages, and the machines hold only about 50 sheets at a time.

Handwrytten also has 25 human employees, including mobile developers, software engineers and staffers who stuff envelopes. (Robots, though, do the sealing and stamping.)

The company is among a growing number of card-writing services, each with its own spin.

Felt in Telluride, Colorado, gives customers the option to write cards themselves using a finger or stylus on their phone screens. New York-based Postable allows users to schedule a year's worth of birthday and anniversary cards. Other services take a decidedly old-school approach by hiring actual humans to write thousands of notes a week.

"As the world becomes more automated, our products become that much more effective," said Mr Anatoliy Birger, director of sales for Letter Friend, which typically charges US$4 to US$5 per human-written card. "We are filling a real need."

Mr Paras Shah sends nearly 100 cards a year - for graduations, weddings and sometimes just because. But he cannot remember the last time he actually picked up a pen to write one.

"I don't actually want to do the writing," the 28-year-old said. "My handwriting is pretty mediocre, and it just takes too much time."

Mr Shah, who lives in Austin, Texas, and works in oil and gas technology, says he has sent nearly 500 robot-written cards in varying fonts since 2013 and has, as he put it, mostly got away with it. But he has also been called out - once, by a West Texas oil professional who called him disingenuous, and another time by a friend who received an elaborate graduation card from Punkpost, a service that hires professional artists.

Most of the time, though, he stayed mum when friends compliment his "awesome handwriting".

Writing has been a cornerstone of civilisation since the Sumerians introduced cuneiform 5,000 years ago. But it was not until the typewriter came along, about 150 years ago, that historians say handwriting took on new meaning as an intimate and revealing form of communication.

"Historically, people were trained to write as indistinguishably as possible - for your writing to look a certain way, that was a sign of education," said Ms Anne Trubek, author of "The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting".

"But in the last 100, 150 years, we have decided that handwriting is an expression of the individual self, that it can provide a connection to history."

Longhand has become more valued in an era of digital correspondence, said Ms Trubek.

After years of retreat, state legislatures are beginning to reintroduce penmanship into elementary school curriculum. There are summer camps that teach cursive, and some college professors report a resurgence in students taking notes by hand.

Even so, written correspondence is on the decline. On average, American households now receive one personal letter every 10 weeks, according to the US Postal Service, about half what they did a decade ago. Americans mailed 42 per cent fewer holiday cards in 2018 than they did in 2008.

"Handwriting has become a way to show that you put time and effort into something," Ms Trubek said. "That's the veneer people are yearning for."

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