June 27, 2017Published by: Sarah Boulton

War of the words: Is journalism really under threat by robots?

Every week there seems to be another headline about how robots are going to steal our jobs. AI is infiltrating most industries and the communications sector is no exception.

At the beginning of the year an artificially intelligent robot in China wrote an entire article in just one second. The Daily Express picked up the news and ran with the headline: “RISE OF THE MACHINE: Journalists under threat” – but, is this really the case?

Only last week there was a story circulating Twitter about how the LA Times issued a news story about an earthquake that happened over 92 years ago.This happened due to a “misinterpretation of data” in the AI based software it uses to write up early warning earthquake alerts. It was seen as a novel mistake, but it highlights a crucial flaw in ‘robot journalism”.

So, what are the pros?

  • Low resource, bots to the rescue -  The Washington Post’s Heliograf bot is a good example of this. Editors create narrative templates for the stories, including key phrases that account for a variety of potential outcomes and then they hook Heliograf up to any source of structured data. The Heliograf software identifies the relevant data, matches it with the corresponding phrases in the template, merges them, and then publishes different versions across various platforms. It allows them to target many small audiences with a huge number of automated stories about niche or local topics, something that would bankrupt them if they used human resource.
  • Checking fake news - Reuters’ algorithmic prediction tool helps journalists gauge the integrity of a tweet. The tech score emerging stories on the basis of “credibility” and “newsworthiness” by evaluating who’s tweeting about it, how it’s spreading across the network, and if nearby users have taken to Twitter to confirm or deny breaking developments.

The general consensus is that despite advances in AI technology the human touch is still crucial in journalism. There are lots of areas that AI technology is unable to replicate currently. For example, robots are still unable to conduct face-to-face interviews and respond intuitively with follow-up questions. They also don’t have the ability to select a news angle from an interview or conversation. As with everything, it seems that a balance of technology and human interaction is the best approach. It will be interesting to watch as advancements and the sophistication of AI continues.

WARNING: this piece was written by a human

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