Robot Journalists: ‘Quakebot’ Is Just the Beginning
When an earthquake hit Los Angeles recently, Ken Schwencke, a journalist and programmer for the Los Angeles Times, was first to get the news out. Woken up by the tremors at 6:25 a.m. on Monday, March 17, he went to his computer and found a brief story already waiting, courtesy of a robot — an algorithm he developed and named Quakebot....MUCH MORE
Quakebot’s role in the swift reporting of the earthquake story has industry observers talking about the role of robots in the future of journalism. Among those at the forefront of robot journalism is Noam Lemelshtrich Latar, dean of the Sammy Ofer School of Communications at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. Latar has written several papers on the topic, such as “The Future of Journalism: Artificial Intelligence and Digital Identities” and “Digital Identities and Journalism Content: How Artificial Intelligence and Journalism May Co-develop and Why Society Should Care.”
Latar has a master’s degree in engineering systems from Stanford and a Ph.D. in communications from MIT. His work has been concentrated in the area of touch-screen phones and allied devices. His paper, “Screen Feedback from Home Terminals,” was the first to explore this concept. Today, however, Latar is focusing on artificial intelligence and robot journalism. In this interview with Knowledge@Wharton conducted late last year, Latar discusses whether robots will one day replace human journalists.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge@Wharton: What exactly is robot journalism?
Noam Latar: Computers have helped journalists to write, to find facts, since the middle of the last century. There was what we call data mining and analytics — data analytics — which helped journalists find the facts and do investigative journalism. So, this is not new. What is now developing is that the new programs — artificial intelligence (AI) programs — get the facts and write the story within a fraction of a second. Today, there are stories written in Forbes and other newsmagazines that are untouched by human journalists. The AI program writes the story, and the name of the journalist is really the name of a robot. There’s a company called Narrative Science in Illinois that is already doing it and has collected a lot of money from investors.
Knowledge@Wharton: Is this a new phenomenon, or has this been around for a while? Didn’t your research at MIT in the 1970s actually predict some of this?
Latar: No. My research predicted touch screens, which were later used by Steve Jobs. I did the first studies on interactive television. We studied how providing people in the television studio with devices to provide feedback would affect the group dynamics and the discussion dynamics. At that time, we did not predict robot journalism at all. Data mining has developed in the past 20 years.
Knowledge@Wharton: How pervasive is robot journalism?
Latar: It’s still in the initial stages because the programs really started in 2010. But they’re penetrating very quickly because the robot journalist has certain real advantages. First of all, it never forgets facts. It can do research very quickly. It never asks for a day off. And it can write the story within seconds. If you write the program correctly, [the robot is] not even biased. As you know, most journalists are biased about their stories. But the robot journalist, if you program it correctly, can be completely unbiased.
Knowledge@Wharton: So they don’t miss deadlines?...
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