Are robot editors just "a matter of time"?

The recently appointed New Scientist Editor Emily Wilson recently said that while she was pleased to be the first woman to edit the publication, it’s “only a question of time” before a robot does the job.

So how long will be before machine-writing software really starts to take a hold in newsrooms?

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What is exactly automated journalism? According to Matt Carlson, author of “The Robotic Reporter”,  it is the algorithmic process that converts data into narrative news texts with limited to no human intervention beyond the initial programming.

A recent article  on medium.com explained that the emergence of  big data and algorithmic technology means that it is now possible to convert data from reports into news stories.

Some news organisations are already doing this.  The Associated Press news agency has since 2014 used the services of Automated Insights for the production of certain kinds of data-driven stories.

The system uses a programme called Wordsmith to convert complicated data into a plain-language narrative.

Wordsmith transforms earnings data from Zacks Investment Research into a publishable AP story in a fraction of a second. In fact, the Wordsmith team specifically configured the natural language generation engine to write in AP style.

As a result, AP now produces 4,400 quarterly earnings stories – a 12-fold increase over its manual efforts.

The news agency insists that the stories “retain the same quality and accuracy that readers expect from any of AP’s human-written articles”.

Aside from an explanatory note at the bottom of the story, there is no evidence they were written by an algorithm.

After AP announced its “leap forward in quarterly earnings stories”, media outlets like The New York TimesSlate, and Mashable started writing about its innovative approach.

New York Magazine’s Roose called automated reporting “the best thing to happen to journalists in a long time”.

Automation has not so far displaced any reporters, but AP says it has freed up the equivalent of three full-time employees across the organisation.

As The Verge noted, “computers are not taking journalists’ jobs — not yet, at any rate. Instead, they’re freeing up writers to think more critically about the bigger picture”.

Likewise The LA Times now employs a robot that collects information on every homicide committed in the city of Los Angeles.

The “Homicide Report” uses a robot-reporter capable of including detailed data such as the victim’s gender and race, cause of death, officer involvement, neighbourhood and year of death.

Meanwhile The Guardian, The Washington Post and Forbes.com have also experimented with automated news generators provided by Narrative Science, a start-up headquartered in Chicago.

The company’s co-founder Kristian Hammond, once said that within 15 years more than 90% percent of news would be written by a computer. 

The Washington Post for its part reported last year that its own AI bot, known as Heliograf, published 850 stories entirely autonomously, primarily reporting on sports and the outcomes of regional political races.

Heliograf, the company's bot, first debuted at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. It automatically put together stories by interpreting sports data and structuring it narratively based on patterns it learned from analyzing historical Washington Post articles.

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“The use of the system allowed continuous reporting and accurate medal counts even for contests that were thinly covered by reporting staff,” Searchenterprise recently reported.

“Much of the content generated by AI and machine learning relates to information and news that is of public interest, but doesn't require a large number of paid human staff to cover,” the website reported.

“AI is being put to good use generating weather reports, financial industry summarizations, coverage of highly regional or local news and events, sporting event summaries, and other information that involves numerical information.

“AI systems can quantify that information and turn it into natural language text that's human readable.

“AI systems are also being used to generate breaking news content to bridge the gap until human reporters are able to get to the scene. Reuters, for example, is using AI to scour twitter feeds to find breaking news before it becomes headlines. In this way, valuable information is transmitted as soon as it's available.”

Not to be outdone, The New York Times is using an augmented intelligence approach leveraging an AI-based technology known as Editor that sits alongside journalists and identifies key phrases, headlines and text details.

The system can provide on-the-spot research, content suggestions, links, fact-checking, and supporting quotes or facts to help improve the overall quality of the piece.

“This helps to significantly reduce the research workload of reporters and enables them to turn out better quality content faster.” Searchenterprise said.

So see you all at the Church and Media conference – providing I’m not replaced by a computer.

Alastair Tancred, MediaNet editor