The college essay was simple enough: "Why do you want to major in journalism?" A person who wants to write for a living should have NO PROBLEM with this question, but there we were. I would have paid millions to get a robot to write it for me... ironic for two reasons: 1) that's how much college is going to cost me, and 2) a robot that can write could steal my future career. Surprisingly, writing robots are real! Sadly, not the college essay kind. Robo-journalism is "gearing" up to transform the news we consume, so let's explore how robo-journalism is being used by traditional media and implications that demonstrate why skilled human journalists will continue to matter… I hope.
So, what is robo-journalism and how does it work? The Huffington Post of January 17, 2018, explains robo-journalism is when news articles are created by computer programs, rather than human reporters, by Artificial Intelligence, or AI, software. These programs merge data into story templates, quickly and efficiently generating the news released to the public.
The Washington Post first debuted its AI technology, called "Heliograf," during the 2016 Rio Olympics. The program reported key information, including event schedules, results, and medal tallies. In its early stages, Heliograf "automatically generated short multi-sentence updates for readers." Since then, The Post expanded Heliograf to cover nearly 500 races on Election Day in October of 2016 and, even some high school football games. TOUCHDOWN.
It's hard to imagine that something so new already has extensive applications, but robo-journalism has its hand (or claw?) in much of what we consume. According to BBC of January 30, 2018, a team of journalists and software engineers at the Press Association, or PA, in London are currently developing their own computer program designed to cover local trends. The PA actually sends their robo-generated stories to online publications and local newspapers to be published as content, without disclosing they were written by robots. Funded by a billion dollar grant from Google, PA intends to distribute 30,000 automated stories every month, an impossible volume to match manually.
Even more striking, according to the previously cited Huffington Post, Chinese developers have created Jia Jia, a humanoid robot journalist. She gained major attention when she conducted a live interview with an editor of WIRED Magazine. While Jia Jia can carry out simple conversations and make specific facial expressions, her movement is limited and she can only respond to straightforward questions.
Robo-journalism technology is impressive, but it cannot yet imitate the complex skill set of a human journalist. There is no denying the appeal robots hold for publishers struggling to survive. Which leads to two implications: greater efficiency and inaccurate news.
First, robots act as an assistant by automating routine stories and tasks. This increases time for journalists to focus on more important issues, such as investigative reporting, and ironically, human interest stories. Robo-journalism is also an effective cost-cutting method- leading Forbes of July 31, 2017, to explain that journalists already worry about the impact of robo-journalism on the profession.
Which leads to our second implication- the expansion of robo-journalism technology increases the risk of inaccuracies- intentional, or not. There have already been instances of computers misinterpreting data, notably a 1925 earthquake being reported as current. Of greater concern- deliberate errors. An August 2017 Indiana University study concluded, "[Social media] accounts that actively spread misinformation are significantly more likely to be bots." Clearly, robo-journalism increases the chance of falsehoods being reported as fact in our 24/7 news cycle.- which affects us all. Fake news, anyone?
I have always loved writing and sharing other people's stories, so I committed to the career for that- journalism. After taking a close look at the use and implications of robo-journalism, I'm more determined than ever to pursue that career. And that's something to write about.