Robots: The New Journalists

July 15, 2014

“Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a ... canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?”

From I, Robot

Who wouldn’t want to replace reporters with robots?  It’s understandable when you consider the advantages.

Robots are available when needed.  They don’t call in sick, don’t complain, don’t make annoying demands and they’ll even work on holidays.  Their work may be flawless, they always make deadlines and they’re 100% objective.  They don’t gossip, don’t waste time talking about sports and won’t try to unionize.  They don’t collect a paycheck and they don’t need health insurance.

Robots make great employees, because they’re not human.  So it’s not surprising that the Associated Press this month has begun using robots from Automated Insights to generate up to 4,400 quarterly earnings reports.

AP isn’t the first to use robowriters.  Forbes uses algorithms from Narrative Science to research and write brief stories about companies whose stocks are performing well, while The Los Angeles Times uses bots to publish stories about earthquakes and homicides.

Where Will It Stop?

Associated Press says robots will be used only for the dull, formulaic writing that reporters typically hate doing anyway, such as earnings reports.  But much of AP’s writing is dull and formulaic, so where will it stop?

Robots could help both print and online media produce more copy faster, while freeing up human reporters to cover stories that matter.  They could potentially save the media industry enough money to not only survive, but be profitable for many years.

They could also improve quality.  News staffs have been cut to the point where journalists barely have time to cover breaking news and, as a result, traditional news is becoming increasingly homogeneous.  If reporters are writing the basic news, presumably real reporters will have time to dig deeper and be more enterprising.  If newspapers are carrying news that can’t be found elsewhere, they will be more competitive.

But will robots eventually replace reporters and produce real news stories?  Robots can be programmed to follow the AP Style Book to the letter, but can they produce stories of Pultizer Prize caliber?

Allegedly, stories produced by robots are indistinguishable from stories produced by human reporters.  The only writing I have by which to judge the abilities of robots is the automated spam that shows up as comments in my blog, where hundreds of robowritten comments appear daily.  Here’s one of the more coherent examples, so you can judge for yourself:

“said second priced this a paragraph, are utensils, the mainland from up, to " Michael Kors hobo handbags world's state. Initial also Michael Kors apparel has in as times. Michael Kors flat shoes decline. state. Hermes brand Michael Kors braided grommet.”

I’m not sure what a Michael Kors braided grommet is or why anyone would buy one, but when millions of automated comments are distributed on the Internet, it improves search results for Michael Kors products and, presumably, boosts sales.

If the purpose of such automated writing is to waste my time, it achieves its goal admirably.  I wish I had a robot to delete robocomments.

They’re Not Human

But this example also illustrates the problem with roboreporters.  Their greatest advantage is also their greatest problem – they’re not human.  They’re only as good as the algorithms that instruct them and the algorithms are only as good as the humans who create them.

It’s doubtful that those who have the skills to create such algorithms also have an in-depth understanding of journalism or even of writing.  Granted, the automated blog comments I receive are not designed to be readable, they’re created to improve search results for the likes of Michael Kors, Coach and Ugg boots.

But if robojournalism is designed solely to disseminate information, it will be a big loss.

Because robots don’t think like humans – at least not yet – they don’t write like humans.  While their writing may be objective, it also lacks emotion, sarcasm and nuance.  Style does not compute.

If all it took to create a news story was to plug in who, what, when, where, why and how, the process could be automated, but journalism is not a commodity.

In the movie RoboCop, the American public is opposed to using robots as cops, because robots lack feelings.  The near-lifeless body of Detroit police officer Alex Murphy is integrated into a robot’s body to create a half-man/half-machine robocop that the public finds more acceptable.

Reporting has not yet reached the stage where journalists are ready to be integrated with machines, but an acceptance of robocopy in newsrooms across the country seems inevitable.

The problem is that no one will know where to stop.  If robots can save money for a media company, they will be increasingly integrated into the newsroom.  Maybe next they’ll be reporting the weather, then covering sports, since they can provide stats more accurately than your favorite sportscaster.

They can scan the police log and report police news, and maybe sooner or later they can be programmed to the left or right and produce commentaries.  Some op-ed writers already seem like unthinking Stepford columnists, writing copy that reads more like propaganda than insightful opinion.  Eugene Robinson and Bill Press, to cite two examples, may already be robots, as their columns make about much sense as the Michael Kors robocopy cited earlier.

Newspapers, in particular, need to change to survive.  When the Internet first surfaced, they should have been in the forefront, recognizing the advantages of online news – no printing costs, news reported as it happens and two-way communication, to cite a few examples.

Instead, newspapers resisted change.  Most were accustomed to a lack of competition, being, in most cases, the sole source of print news in the city or town they served.  Their response to competition was to pretend it didn’t exist.  Now, though, they must change to survive.

Robots will likely be used more, because if the industry doesn’t change, it will fail.  But will robots save journalism or destroy it?  We’ll soon find out.

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