Robots and reporting: a shift toward AI

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I watched a morning TV news show a couple of weeks ago about artificial intelligence that was fascinating as it showed all of the automation that already exists — robots making pizza and all kinds of other things. It’s no secret robots have become a way of life in many industries. Amazon’s Alexa and iPhone’s Siri, those friendly, life-like virtual assistants, are becoming pretty commonplace.

But when they mentioned artificial intelligence already is making its way into journalism in a pretty significant way, it caught my attention.

“Nonsense!” I declared in my mind, but the thought lingered to the point where I did some quick research online and discovered that, indeed, I apparently need to be worried about job security.

A MediaShift story by associate editor Ben DeJarnette had a comment from Narrative Science Co-founder Kris Hammond, who estimated 90 percent of news content could be written by computers by the mid-2020s. Hammond has gone so far as to predict that “a machine will win a Pulitzer one day.”

How can this be?

I don’t profess to know much about technology, but apparently it’s all about creating algorithms to manhandle the news. What exactly is an algorithm? I had to look it up in my hard-copy, old-fashioned dictionary. An algorithm is a step-by-step procedure for accomplishing some end, especially by a computer.

So these little algorithms are after my job. I hope I can stave them off for a few years until I retire.

“The future of automated journalism is still a long way from being settled,” DeJarnette wrote, but he pointed to several developments “that might hold clues for what’s ahead.”

For starters, Facebook fired its Trending topics team some time ago, and algorithms now handle the feed’s top stories. Another of these AI developments involves our very own Associated Press, the lifeblood of state and national news for daily newspapers. The Associated Press has partnered with Automated Insights to produce quarterly earnings reports, a move that helped produce 3,000 reports per quarter instead of just 300. To add insult to injury, the automated stories apparently contained “far fewer errors” than those written by humans, DeJarnette noted.

Artificial intelligence infiltrating journalism is serious enough that the esteemed Columbia Journalism Review wrote about it earlier this summer.

“Some see its various iterations as tools for reducing grunt work; others see a field full of ethical land mines. Most see a little bit of both,” Nausicaa Renner wrote in the Review.

Speaking of grunt work, Lord knows I could have used a robot to cover the hundreds of city council and county commissioner meetings I’ve sat through over the last 37 years.

There’s no doubt the field of journalism is in the middle of a sea change in how news is delivered, and there are sweeping changes on the horizon where artificial intelligence and journalism is concerned. I just hope humans still get to write stories for a few more years.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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