Robots are after my job, and perhaps yours too


Robots are after my job. They’re after yours as well, but let us deal with my problem first. Associated Press, an American multinational nonprofit news agency, revealed on Friday that it published 3,000 articles in the last three months of 2014. The company could previously only publish 300 stories. It didn’t hire more journalists, neither did its existing headcount start writing more, but the actual reason behind this exponential growth is technology. All those stories were written by an algorithm.

Last summer the publication partnered with Automated Insights -- a US-based company that provides real-time content automation services to "transform data into narratives, visualizations and applications" -- to begin automating quarterly earnings reports using the software company’s patented Wordsmith platform. The algorithm is churning out business reports -- something which requires a human to have a scrupulous understanding of the market, drink a lot of latte, and be damn accurate and quick -- at an incredible pace.

The articles produced by the algorithm were accurate, and you won’t be able to separate them from stories written by humans. Good lord, all the stories were written in accordance with the AP Style Guide, something not all journalists follow (but arguably, should).

This isn’t the first time a program has attempted (and succeeded) at writing news stories, either. Last year, an LA Times writer-bot "reported" a snippet about an earthquake just three minutes after the event. No wonder the publication claimed that it was the first to report the story.

But is it going to make journalists jobless? We don’t know yet. The publication says that it didn’t let go any journalists in the last quarter. In fact, the whole point of having the software in place, the news outlet says, is to give journalists some time to think and look at the bigger picture instead of rushing out to report the earnings numbers.

That’s an interesting point. Algorithms can write stories, and they have been doing it for quite sometime now, but there are a few things they can’t do (just yet): deliver analysis, offer insights, put in opinion, and show readers the big picture. They can produce some kinds of stories -- stories that are publicly available, and could be crunched down to the highlight with boilerplate connectors.

There has been a growth in the number of such software. Narrative Science, a Chicago-based company offers an automated narrative generator powered by artificial intelligence. The company’s co-founder and CTO, Kristian Hammond, said last year that he believes that by 2030, 90 percent of news could be written by computers. Forbes, a reputable news outlet, has used Narrative’s software. Some news outlets use it to write email newsletters and similar things.

Hammond, however, insists that their software isn’t going to harm journalism or journalists. "This robonews tsunami will not wash away the remaining human reporters who still collect paychecks", he told Wired last year. "Instead the universe of newswriting will expand dramatically, as computers mine vast troves of data to produce ultracheap, totally readable accounts of events, trends, and developments that no journalist is currently covering", he added.

But writing news stories isn’t the only contribution these algorithms are making to the field of journalism. News aggregator websites like Google News and TechMeme use algorithms to curate stories. Google News maintains this disclaimer at the bottom of its webpage. "The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program. The time or date displayed (including in the Timeline of Articles feature) reflects when an article was added to or updated in Google News". TechMeme too has officially acknowledged that it utilizes algorithms to find stories, though the aggregator also has a team of editors who oversee the operation and alter the headlines to make them click-bait free.

Where is journalism headed? Will we have no human reporters in the future? Will the robots do field reporting as well? We don’t know yet. But before you feel sorry about journalists, have a look at the short documentary below as it might change your opinion about your own job.

Image Credit: Ociacia / Shutterstock

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