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I robot

Written By: - Date published: 9:30 am, April 25th, 2010 - 10 comments
Categories: Deep stuff, Media - Tags:

We’re in a transition time for news media. Online media is growing, printed forms are fading. Within the online space distinctions between newspapers and blogs are blurring, and fundamental issues of the balance between pay-walled vs free media remain to be decided. Media is going to look very different in 20 years time!

One of the less remarked aspects of this process is that not all of the decisions are going to be made by people. In fact of course that is already the case. Machines – programs, algorithms – are already in the loop. Handy sites like Google News are collating and ranking news stories already, almost certainly using algorithms similar to the page rank algorithms that they use to rank web pages. But we’re in the process of moving beyond this, to news that is abstracted, and almost certainly soon “written” by machine:

The Rise of Machine-Written Journalism

Peter Kirwan has an interesting article in Wired UK on the emergence of software that automates the collection, evaluation, and even reporting of news events. Thomson Reuters, the world’s largest news agency, has started moving down this path, courtesy of an intriguing product with the nondescript name NewsScope, a machine-readable news service designed for financial institutions that make their money from automated, event-driven trading. The latest iteration of NewsScope ‘scans and automatically extracts critical pieces of information‘ from US corporate press releases, eliminating the ‘manual processes’ that have traditionally kept so many financial journalists in gainful employment. …

This raises more interesting questions than I know what to do with. Who will write these news collecting and authoring programs? What biases will be built in to them? Gaming page rank is already big business, how long before gaming news rank is the next political battlefield? Who is legally responsible for an automated news item (and its consequences)? As we turn over news and voting systems to programs and programmers are we ensuring that the geek shall inherit the earth? Hmmmm. Well, one thing I’m confident of, The Standard will always be written by flesh and red-blooded humans. Make that – fairly confident – I guess Lynn could always decide that robots were a lot less trouble than writers…

10 comments on “I robot ”

  1. uke 1

    The decline of news coverage has been much discussed, but shouldn’t we celebrate our current “golden age” of sports journalism?

    If I was graduating from reporter-school that’s where I would be aiming for. The sports section. So many different codes and news happening all the time. Needing more and more reporters and commentators. Taking up a whole quarter of the evening news (and deserving much more).

    Machines will never replace sports journalists.

    • Ianmac 1.1

      Good point Uke. I suppose that since sport is basically adverserial, it is easy to report on team or individual fortunes and anyway, who cares tomorrow. About as much substance as who is getting off with whom, or who is the fairest of us all?

    • felix 1.2

      Most of the political journalism in the MSM is pretty much sports journalism anyway.

  2. Draco T Bastard 2

    Last time I looked, robots can’t actually do any investigation so the automated news will still be being investigated and written by people which the programs will then parse and rewrite. Of course, there isn’t a hell of a lot of investigative journalism happening any more and most of the “news” in the MSM isn’t news. This doesn’t bode well for having an informed citizenry.

  3. Rich 3

    This has been going on for a while. I used to work for a software firm that developed (pre-web) news delivery software, and there was a lot of interest in automated processing and pattern matching.

    A lot of what financial news services do is to take companies regulatory releases (long, legalistic documents) and extract the salient facts in a few lines (such as the profit figure). There’s a premium on how quickly you can do this, so if a program could do this faster and cheaper than a person, they’d get an advantage. It isn’t traditional journalism, though.

  4. Jenny 4

    George Orwell a professional journalist by trade, with a wry humour mixed with pathos, amplified on processes he already saw developing in the media.

    From 1984:

    “The Ministry of Truth primary job was to supply the citizens of Oceania with newspapers, films, textbooks, telescreen programmes, plays, novels – with every conceivable kind of information, instruction, or entertainment, …….”

    “Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator.”

    Orwell’s hero Winston Smith, works in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth altering the past. Another employee at the Ministry of Truth worked in the Fiction Dept.

    “He did not know her name, but he knew that she worked in the Fiction Department. Presumably – since he had sometimes seen her with oily hands and carrying a spanner – she had some mechanical job on one of the novel-writing machines.”

    Today we seem to be just a bit further down the logical line of progression identified by Orwell.

    Spookily my anti-spam word was processes.

    Are you out there B.B.?

  5. Jenny 5

    Possibly computers could one day write rubbishy novels to a formula.

    But we already have manufactured TV shows like Pop Idol, as the 21st century’s version of Orwell’s “versificator”.

  6. Bored 6

    For real journalism I come to the Standard, proud bearers of the noble art of reporting it as it really is. Even the likes of TS live here with their altered reality, Farrar drops by….my God, for what do we need the mainline media?

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