Sunday, March 23, 2014

News You Can't Use: Rise of the Machine Reporters

Are we entering an age of mechanized reporting, where the three corporations that own everything simply use sophisticated, or, let's be honest, not especially sophisticated devices to report the news of the world? This would remove the always annoying possibility of human error, where the biological resource says something that runs contrary to the profit interests or Right Think requirements. Besides, think of the productivity. We will replace flesh, which is weak, with steel, which is strong. We'll replace the human brain, which is all gooey and gross, with algorithms that are neat and clean.

A few minutes after a minor earthquake hit Southern California on Monday morning, the Los Angeles Times featured an article about the event on its website, with help from a computer algorithm written by one of the paper's developers.

Well, there is still a human element. I mean, someone must write and maintain those codes, right? Some jobs will still remain. Stop worrying.

Entire companies, such as Narrative Science (business news) and Automated Insights (sports), have business models built around the idea of mechanised journalism.

It seems hard to believe that a computer could have the passion, empathy and deep love of humanity to write a "More Lay-Offs Expected After Algorithms Replace Workers" or "Yellow Beats Green" story. I just can't accept it.

Next you'll tell me that those Penthouse Forum letters aren't entirely legitimate.

Having spent some years as a local news reporter, I can attest that slapping together brief, factual accounts of things like homicides, earthquakes, and fires is essentially a game of Mad Libs that might as well be done by a machine.

Let's try it.

In a tragic turn of events a [number] magnitude quake hit [location]. There's, like, rubble and [additional noun related to ruin/death] everywhere. [Noun] estimates that at least [number] human lives have been lost. Our thoughts and [plural noun] are with the victims.

"Quakebot neatly illustrates the present limitations of automated journalism," he writes. "It can't assess the damage on the ground, can't interview experts, and can't discern the relative newsworthiness of various aspects of the story."

We all know the average reporter is an expert at assessing damage, as in "saying that ethnic slur on the air is going to damage my career A LOT" and so on.

And they're much much more meticulous about fact checking and accuracy. Ha ha, just seeing if you were paying attention.

They gave a developer one day to come up with GUARBOT, which they then assigned to write an article about the health-food staple quinoa.

If robots took over the health-zealot arena would anyone even notice? "Meat bad...eating disgusting vegetables makes me morally superior...bleep...bleep...I'm so much better than the rest of the're a

Here's what their electronic partner came up with:

"The crime-ridden family of quinoa has taken US by storm this month. According to Peru, New York has confirmed that quinoa is more story than anything else they've ever seen. Quotes from top Yotam Ottolenghi eaters suggest that "crop" is currently clear top, possibly more than ground black pepper. Experts say both Salt and University need to traditionally grow to strengthen a common solution. Finally, it is worth slightly rattling that this article was peeled until it made sense."

This is more story than anything I've ever seen, way more story than I could even handle.

The idea of having computers do the rote work that used to be assigned to cub reporters certainly has its allure.

Think of the entry level positions we could destroy, making it impossible for recent graduates to gain experience! Aw, yeah!

"Surely we should just let computers do the work, while humans get on with more investigative and analytical pieces?"

I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

Meet the new intern.

Of course the journalists who are writing investigative and analytical pieces probably cut their chops working on the kind of rote articles that GUARBOT and Quakebot are now tackling.

Yeah, there is that. Oh well, can't mourn forever. 

And don't think it's just reporters whose livelihood is in danger, either. It's only a matter of time before their editors will feel the machine's icy gaze, as well.

Could a machine be programmed to yell about the lack of good Spiderman pictures? Dangerous ideas, these.

Hal, I'd like to do an investigative think-piece on pod bay doors and the debate over whether they should be opened or closed.

"It's full of editorials!"

I, for one, will not welcome our new robot overlords.

So, those Ant People got to you, too?

Komment Korner

Just lost one --400chrs probably

I wish the BBC would consider holding open one general blog with higher character limits, enabling a discussion beyond what's possible here.

I ignore and GO BACK one page --usually works.

Check Out My Books!

Aaron Zehner is the author of "Posts from the Underground," now available in paperback and e-book. Read a free excerpt here.

His first novel The Foolchild Invention is also available in paperback and e-book format. Read free excerpts here and here.

No comments:

Post a Comment