Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
March 28, 2013 5:51 PM

Welcome To The Era Of Robot Bloggers, Journalists And Writers

Would you like this (or any) content less if a robot had written it?

The media is filled with news items abut how robots and algorithms are taking the work away from real, kind and personable human beings. That is one train of thought (personally, I'm offering a different perspective over on my We, Robots blog, which looks at augmentation over automation of all things robotics, 3D printing, telepresence and more). It's scary to think that one day, you may read an article in a magazine or newspaper or online that had no human intervention. No humanity, no personalized style and more. That future is here. Today. It's already happening.

What robot journalism and blogging looks like.

Los Angeles Times journalist, Ken Schwencke, woke up one morning, started brewing a cup of coffee, picked up the daily newspaper and saw an article with his byline on it that he never wrote. You see, Schwencke is spending some of his time writing articles, but he also spends a lot of his time writing algorithms and code. In the article, 'Robo-reporter' computer program raises questions about future of journalists, his story gets told: "Instead of personally composing the pieces, Schwencke developed a set of step-by-step instructions that can take a stream of data -- this particular algorithm works with earthquake statistics, since he lives in California -- compile the data into a pre-determined structure, then format it for publication. His fingers never have to touch a keyboard; he doesn't have to look at a computer screen. He can be sleeping soundly when the story writes itself."

It's easier than you think.

Schwencke surmises that most readers would never even pick up on the automation of content. It's a simple piece of journalism that can be constructed, much in the same way we used to play Mad Libs when we were kids. People not well-versed in media and how things work in journalism are often curious as to how these in-depth obituaries appear in a matter of minutes after someone famous passes. What they fail to realize is that a lot of that content was written long before the death and the exact details (date, time, cause, etc...) are simply filled in. This is done with concert reviews as well and the music journalist simply adds some additional color and commentary but has created a framework long before the lights go down on a show. If these algorithms get better, is too far-fetched to imagine a world where sentiment coupled with specific direction could create copious amounts of the text-based content we consume.

What about ethics?

The prevailing wisdom is this: if newspapers, magazines and online channels use robots or algorithms to create content they have to do so with honesty and transparency. Publishers will have to inform readers when the content is being written by a human or an algorithm, but is that enough? Where do we draw the line? Do you even care? Is it critical that human beings actually write up an article about earthquakes, an obituary or something related to the weather? Would we prefer that these highly-skilled journalists spend their time on pieces that require more than just regurgitating data? Would we not prefer that they spend their time helping the mass populous better understand the full breadth of perspective and discourse? It's somewhat amazing that we haven't arrived at this conclusion sooner.

The true power.

The true power in this is not how computers, algorithms and robots can now replace human writers. The true power is in how computers, algorithms and robots can now free up these human writers to do the more important work that our society requires of them.

So again, I ask you, would you mind if a robot was creating the content you need to consume?

By Mitch Joel