Published on March 1, 2013 | by Lorelei Watt

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All the news that’s fit to compute

A robot.

Some publications are using robots to write their articles. [Flickr: br1dotcom]

Have you ever heard of the infinite monkey theorem?

It states that if you place a group of monkeys in a room with typewriters – eventually they will rewrite Shakespeare’s work.

Now this may seem a little florid and far-fetched to many, mainly because language and writing has always been left to us humans – until now.

If you change the monkeys to a set of computer algorithms or ‘robots’, you might just have something that could spell the end for journalists.

Increasingly nowadays if you are to open an article by Forbes or any other such publication, the byline may read ‘By Narrative Science’.

This is not some trendy avant-garde name – it is a ‘robot journalist’ that can take a set of data and turn it into an article about anything that it is programmed to research.

An experiment

Narrative Science started life as an experiment at the Northwestern University between scientists and those in the journalism profession.

Darren, 25, a graduate from King’s College London, told Arts London News that “for simple information like sports I think that robot journalists may be better than humans because their work should be less opinionated.

“But as someone who reads scientific journals for work, I am more likely to believe the information if it is written by a human.”

He also adds: “I do think it is a shame for people trying to get into journalism, as it will just make it harder for them to find a job.”

“As someone who reads scientific journals for work, I am more likely to believe the information if it is written by a human.” King’s College graduate, Darren

To many this leap forward in technology may seem like an amazing achievement. However it may spell the end for the common journalist.

It is certainly true that the articles written by Narrative Science may not win a Pulitzer Prize anytime soon – a robot journalist does not need sleep, food or payment.

Newspapers and traditional media have been losing money hand over fist. Many journalists have been made redundant and many established news brands are worried about surviving the next three years.

However, it is not all bad news, as there are still areas in which the robots will forever be second to humans.

Rosalie, 24, an art student from The Courtauld Institute of Art, says: “I can see how a robot journalist could be useful in things like sports and science journalism but I don’t think any algorithm could write about art because it is subjective. We will always need humans for that.”

Threat

While the robot journalist may not pose a threat to established journalists who can write a two-page spread for The Times, they could pose a threat to those wanting to break into the world of journalism. It is hard enough as it is to get a job in the competitive world of media.

When speaking to a 13-year-old, who wished to remain anonymous, they said: “I was thinking about going into journalism as it seems like a fun job. But all the stuff in the news about papers closing has made me think. If robot journalists do most of the basic stuff then there is no way I could get a job anywhere.”

“Good journalism is not a mechanistic process – it involves creativity, empathy and understanding.” Gary Herman

When the radio was invented, many people thought it was the end for the newspaper. Likewise, when television came around, many were sure that radio would fade away, yet newspapers and the radio still exist and are enjoyed by many everyday.

The financial incentives of employing a robot which does not need to be paid, however, is great.

But as Gary Herman, chair of the National Union of Journalists New Media council told ALN: “Good journalism is not a mechanistic process – it involves creativity, empathy and understanding.

“We would resist the introduction of robot journalists where they are used simply to replace human journalists because jobs would be destroyed and the general level of journalistic output would deteriorate where human oversight is removed.”

While robot journalists may take over in writing sports or financial stories, they still have not managed to construct a programme that can write an investigative article or a Pulitzer Prize winning piece – of course, this could just be a matter of time.

 

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