If it was not already sufficiently menaced, the beleaguered profession of journalism may now be under threat from robots. Software which can churn facts into narrative content has become quietly but increasingly popular, stealthily taking over roles traditionally held by rookie reporters.
American firm Narrative Sciences has created a program which turns data such as sports statistics into readable reports, articles and summaries. These can be in multiple formats and from different points of view. The software, which won a Chicago Innovation Award in 2011, can be used to cover sports, politics, real estate, local community content and sales and marketing data. Similar services are available from Automated Insights and StatsMonkey, while Narrative Sciences reportedly has 30 publishing clients, including respected business magazine Forbes.
The idea has provoked ridicule from some writers, who say that a computer can never reproduce the individuality and creativity of humans. This may be so, but the content produced by these ‘robots’ is rather disquieting for a reporter. Last year, writers at the sports site Deadspin publicly denounced a particularly badly written match review as obviously created by software, but it had been written by a person. Narrative Science subsequently got one of their robots to rewrite a better piece.
Computer generated articles are already common and will increase. Robots allow newspapers and sites to cover more stories, while sports reports can be generated within minutes of a game. Robots are not susceptible to grammatical and syntactical errors, fatigue or missed deadlines. No need to mention the biggest driver behind the uptake of robots in newsrooms: they are cheaper than humans. Editors may simply be forced to use them.
All this could be good for the profession, if not for individual reporters, but if no new humans are taken on at the lower levels, papers and websites may find themselves without a talented human workforce further down the line. Without such talent, robots may become unmanageable and ultimately bring down businesses that rely solely on them.
Does this mean journalists are safe after all? No, because the software is almost certain to improve while the state of news agencies coffers looks set to deteriorate further. Journalists should not just assume that robots will not learn to write creatively. This is not a particularly extraordinary proposition, given the speed with which technology advances. Researchers at the Intelligent Systems Informatics Lab (ISI) at Tokyo University have already developed a journalist robot that can autonomously explore and report on its environment and can even query people.
Computers may never learn to write with a human touch, to express opinions or threaten those writers that occupy the upper echelons, but they can still menace trainees who often start their careers by doing dull, simple articles. Robot journalists in various forms are not going to go away. It does not mean that one day there will be no humans in newsrooms, but journalists will need to be aware of these computers and react creatively and intelligently in order to compete with them.