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In the Future Will Robots Eventually Replace Journalists?

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If you’re worried that your job might be replaced by a robot, you should be.  Its amazing what can and can’t be done through the use of artificial intelligence in today’s world.  It’s been a year since The Washington Post started using its homegrown artificial intelligence technology, Heliograf, to report on the Rio Olympics.  Since then, they have used Heliograf to cover congressional and gubernatorial races on Election Day and D.C. area high school football games.  Heliograf even tweets.

The Associated Press has used robots to automate earnings coverage, while USA Today has used video software to create short videos.  But media executives are more excited about AI’s potential to go beyond your basic reporting.  Jenny Gilbert, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Post shared what the paper has learned so far from robo reporting and what it’s still trying to figure out.

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Over the first year, the Post has produced around 850 articles using Heliograf.  That included 500 articles around the election that generated more than 500,000 clicks.  Which isn’t a ton in the grand scheme of things, but it’s still pretty impressive.  She also notes that most of these stories the Post wasn’t going to dedicate staff to anyway.  To put this into perspective – during the 2012 election, the Post did just 15% of what it generated in 2016.  Which is pretty impressive considering it was a robot doing all the heavy lifting.

What’s interesting to me, and something I’m grateful for is that AI is actually going to help journalists do more high value work, and not take their jobs away. The AP estimated that it’s freed up 20% of reporters time spent covering corporate earnings and that AI is also moving the needle on accuracy.

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“In the case of automated financial news coverage by AP, the error rate in the copy decreased even as the volume of the output increased more than tenfold,” said Francesco Marconi, AP’s Strategy Manager and AI co-lead

The challenge, it seems is that these robo-reporters can report on things that might require statistical analysis.  Or something that has “math” behind it.  I am saying this in a very general perspective, but I think it makes sense. My guess is that a robo-reporter couldn’t go to an event where there were a lot of feelings and emotions, and be able to accurately report on it.  I doubt they have the ability to feel.  Which is another story – more related to science fiction.  The Post is trying to figure out how to use Heliograf in order to help journalists with more substantive reporting.   During the election, it used Heliograf to alert the newsroom when election results started trending in an unexpected direction, giving reporters lead time to thoroughly cover the news. Gilbert wants Heliograf to play a more ambitious role in the next election.

Overall, robo-reporting can increase a news outlets reach in a meaningful way.  That’s the thinking behind the local football coverage.  Heliograf can be used to digest data like standardized test scores and crime stats – like I said, things with “math” behind them.  But covering a local council meeting who is discussing zoning is another matter.  It’s still too early to quantify the impact that AI is having on reporting.  But, it does seem like it’s moving in a new and interesting way.  I am interested to see where this ends up going.  Who knows, maybe I will be replaced by a robo-reporter.  Stay tuned for that!