Rise of the machine reporters

A robot at a trade show in Hanover, Germany. "Can I quote you on that?"

As if journalists didn't have enough to worry about these days, what with the print portion of their industry dying a long, slow death and the digital product often given away for free. Now comes the rise of the machine reporter.

A few minutes after a minor earthquake hit Southern California on Monday morning, the Los Angeles Times featured an article about the event on its website, with help from a computer algorithm written by one of the paper's developers.

It's not the first time the newspaper has used automated reporting. And the Times isn't the first media outlet to rely on such systems. Entire companies, such as Narrative Science (business news) and Automated Insights (sports), have business models built around the idea of mechanised journalism.

Start Quote

Quakebot neatly illustrates the present limitations of automated journalism”

End Quote Will Oremus Slate

Slate's Will Oremus writes that computers are fully capable of basic reporting tasks:

Having spent some years as a local news reporter, I can attest that slapping together brief, factual accounts of things like homicides, earthquakes, and fires is essentially a game of Mad Libs that might as well be done by a machine.

He thinks journalists shouldn't be worried, however.

"Quakebot neatly illustrates the present limitations of automated journalism," he writes. "It can't assess the damage on the ground, can't interview experts, and can't discern the relative newsworthiness of various aspects of the story."

The Guardian has also tried automated reporting, although its experiment was a little more haphazard.

They gave a developer one day to come up with GUARBOT, which they then assigned to write an article about the health-food staple quinoa. Here's what their electronic partner came up with:

The crime-ridden family of quinoa has taken US by storm this month. According to Peru, New York has confirmed that quinoa is more story than anything else they've ever seen. Quotes from top Yotam Ottolenghi eaters suggest that "crop" is currently clear top, possibly more than ground black pepper. Experts say both Salt and University need to traditionally grow to strengthen a common solution. Finally, it is worth slightly rattling that this article was peeled until it made sense.

The article seems like it needs a bit more "peeling", but then I haven't been the victim of a quinoa-related crime.

Start Quote

Surely we should just let computers do the work, while humans get on with more investigative and analytical pieces?”

End Quote Aisha Gani and Leila Haddou The Guardian

The idea of having computers do the rote work that used to be assigned to cub reporters certainly has its allure.

"The mundane task of trawling through wire copy to spot a newsworthy item could be seen as a waste of resources, especially if all that's required is straight reportage of facts and figures," write the Guardian's Aisha Gani and Leila Haddou. "Surely we should just let computers do the work, while humans get on with more investigative and analytical pieces?"

Of course the journalists who are writing investigative and analytical pieces probably cut their chops working on the kind of rote articles that GUARBOT and Quakebot are now tackling. You don't just step out of college as the next Seymour Hersh.

And don't think it's just reporters whose livelihood is in danger, either. It's only a matter of time before their editors will feel the machine's icy gaze, as well.

"At a panel on automated storytelling at Columbia Journalism School's Tow Center for Digital Journalism last month, Narrative Science co-founder Larry Birnbaum speculated on a system that could exercise editorial judgment," writes New Scientist's Aviva Rutkin. "The bot would decide which stories were worth writing, how the stories should be written and which readers to show them to."

Hal, I'd like to do an investigative think-piece on pod bay doors and the debate over whether they should be opened or closed.

"I'm sorry, Anthony, I'm afraid I can't assign that."

I, for one, will not welcome our new robot overlords.



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  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Lucy J

    Nice to hear from you -- WHAT ARE YOU USING ?

    How do you ´sign-in´?

    We should attempt to pass the ´news´around (this link)--and hope those who have given up --return.

    Have been told problems will be resolved in 3 weeks -- but this article may be more correct ?

    -- and not even an official apology on the other blogs

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    8. Have been locked out of all BBC comments sections but the Anthony Zurcher threads for weeks now: "Unable to post your comment at this time", and even the Zurcher threads mostly stall at 5 entries or so on the first page, i.e. cannot review other comments. Guess its not personal?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Oaktree: International users experiencing problems

    BBC apparently wants people with ipads and smartphones to blog on their website
    as opposed to 'old-fashioned people' with computers?

    I am definitely not in favor of the changes
    but I rember when we used to have unlimited blogs
    which changed to limited blogs like tweets
    and now its being reduced to not being able to blog at all

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    The plot thickens.

    International users experiencing problems signing in and contributing (for weeks now) --should read this !



  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    6. US corporate transfer of manufacturing to Asia, Romney/Bain Capital, et al, has decimated that sector at home and stalled employment/incomes - benefit is affordability at Wal-Mart, sadly the largest employer (sic) in the US now. Kurt Vonnegut's 'Player Piano' is rapidly becoming the US reality as the Patriot Act/NSA grows ever more pervasive: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Player_Piano_(novel)

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Robots can never be consumers, thus the gigantic Catch-22 for replacing human workers with robots. There is a guaranteed economic tipping point where the loss of consumers outweighs the cost savings of computer workers. In other words, the added efficiency won't matter if there aren't enough consumers left to buy the product.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    So the Mini-true got some new writing machines eh? And we are surprised? They have been using formulaic reporting now for more then 40 years, and actually long before 1984. The Minitrue and Minipax, have worked together for a long time, since '63 at a minimum; can we "Tonkin Gulf Incident"?

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Thought that the technology was standard at Murdoch's Fox News and the talking heads there actually puppets - they certainly look/sound 'mechanized'?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    And then we could have reader bots read the mind numbing tripe that is created by this means. What an amazing new world this could be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    robot reporting not likely for catastrophic events in near future but you never know! news gathering is expensive and human generated so that fewer sources will be used to more news outlets. news is becoming more social oriented and outsourced and less news. and personally I like the printed page paper , book or magazine over the monitor screen. in time I may change as monitors get better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Great--automated news! So rather than having reporters with a conscience and a sense of ethics (which fewer and fewer are using), news agencies could program their news reporting to say what their sponsors want or what the government tells them to... without having to worry about reporters or editors lashing out by speaking the truth. I was getting tired of occasional honest reporting anyway.


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