The rise of the robot reporter


“The financial markets are ahead of others in this,” said John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief of Bloomberg.

In addition to covering company earnings for Bloomberg, robot reporters in the US have been prolific producers of local sports articles for The Associated Press and The Washington Post, and earthquakes for The Los Angeles Times.

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Last week, The Guardian’s Australia edition published its first machine-assisted article, an account of annual political donations to the country’s political parties. And Forbes recently announced that it was testing a tool called Bertie to provide reporters with rough drafts and story templates.

As the use of artificial intelligence has become a part of the industry’s toolbox, journalism executives say it is not a threat to human employees. Rather, the idea is to allow journalists to spend more time on substantive work.

“The work of journalism is creative, it’s about curiosity, it’s about storytelling, it’s about digging and holding governments accountable, it’s critical thinking, it’s judgment; and that is where we want our journalists spending their energy,” said Lisa Gibbs, director of news partnerships for the AP.

The AP was an early adopter when it struck a deal in 2014 with Automated Insights, a technology company specialising in language generation software that produces billions of machine-generated stories a year.

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In addition to leaning on the software to generate local sports stories the AP, like Bloomberg, has used it to beef up its coverage of company earnings reports. Since joining forces with Automated Insights, the AP has gone from producing 300 articles on earnings reports per quarter to 3700.

The Post has an in-house robot reporter called Heliograf, which demonstrated its usefulness with its coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games and the 2016 elections. Last year, thanks to Heliograf, The Post won in the category of Excellence in Use of Bots at the annual Global Biggies Awards, which recognise accomplishments in the use of big data and artificial intelligence. (As if to make journalists jittery, the Biggies ceremony took place at Columbia University’s Pulitzer Hall.)

AI journalism is not as simple as a shiny robot banging out copy. A lot of work goes into the front end, with editors and writers meticulously crafting several versions of a story, complete with text for different outcomes. Once the data is in — for a weather event, a sports game or an earnings report — the system can create an article.

But machine-generated stories are not infallible. For an earnings report article, for instance, software systems may meet their match in companies that cleverly choose figures in an effort to garner a more favourable portrayal than the numbers warrant. At Bloomberg, reporters and editors try to prepare Cyborg so that it will not be spun by such tactics.

AI in newsrooms may also go beyond the production of rote articles.

“I hope we’ll see AI tools become a productivity tool in the practice of reporting and finding clues,” said Hilary Mason, general manager for machine learning at Cloudera, a data management software company. “When you do data analysis, you can see anomalies and patterns using AI. And a human journalist is the right person to understand and figure out.”

The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones are experimenting with the technology to help with various tasks, including the transcription of interviews or helping journalists identify “deep fakes,” the convincingly fabricated images generated through AI.

“Maybe a few years ago, AI was this new shiny technology used by high tech companies, but now it’s actually becoming a necessity,” said Francesco Marconi, head of research and development at The Journal. “I think a lot of the tools in journalism will soon by powered by artificial intelligence.”

The New York Times said it had no plans for machine-generated news articles, but the company has experimented with using AI to personalise newsletters, help with comment moderation and identify images as it digitises its archive.

New York Times

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