Robot Reporters Could Help Alleviate Workload in Some Newsrooms

You go to a job interview intent on being better than the other candidate. The problem is, the other candidate doesn't get tired, doesn't have personality conflicts (or a personality), never gets sick or talks back and doesn't put in for overtime. The other candidate, you see, is a robot.

Sure, you may have worked with people who seemed like robots, but now we are talking about the real McCoy. Several variations of the robotic reporter have been in the news lately. The news is especially prevalent in light of this month's announcement that Columbia University will soon offer a journalism/technology dual degree. In the announcement, Columbia Academic Dean Bill Grueskin said, "This program is designed to turn out graduates with both the highest caliber of journalism training as well as technical skills ranging from data mining to computational imaging."

Below, I've laid out some of the ways that robot reporters reflect this intersection of journalism and technology.

Finally, a likable reporter

The most honest-to-gosh real reporting robot in the batch has been built at the Intelligent Systems Informatics Lab at Tokyo University. It travels on Segway wheels, detects changes in its environment, interview peoples, surfs the Web, takes pictures and can post directly to the Web.

How handy would it be to have a robot doing "man on the street" interviews at the mall? A lot of human reporters hate that assignment.

One other thing makes this whirring, clicking reporter different from the flesh-and-blood kind. People seem to like it.

Sport-bots's Robbie Allen is building software to create sports content that will feed right into blog posts and that will read like it was written by actual sportswriters.

He writes: "I've identified 21 different types of sports stories that can be automated. You could say I'm trying to make the process of writing a sports blog so easy you don't have to do anything at all.  My goal for these blogs in version 1.0 is that at least 90% of the readers think the content was created by a human."

But won't this put sportswriters out of business? Not as long as we have stars like Tiger Woods, Allen says. Algorithms do not explain Woods' off-the-course behavior.

The folks at Northwestern University's Intelligent Information Laboratory have a sport-bot of their own. They say, "Imagine that you could push a button, and magically create a story about a baseball game.  That's what the Stats Monkey system does. Given information commonly available online about many games -- the box score and the play-by-play -- the system automatically generates the text of a story about that game that captures the overall dynamic of the game and highlights the key plays and key players."

News untouched by human hands

If you don't like the Intelligent Information Laboratory's sports news, you might click over to its MediaMatic Show, built on its News at Seven technology. The lab's Web site says "it intelligently and autonomously extracts and modifies text, information, and media from across the web, then scripts an entire multimedia presentation, complete with animated, talking anchors." These anchors move and talk, but they are not people.

The Web site will let you view an episode or download a paper, such as this one titled "Machine-Generated Multimedia Content."

The next generation

Columbia, Northwestern and other journalism schools are helping to pave the way for the next generation of journalists and news consumers.

A strong marriage of journalism and technology will free journalists from the routine and the mundane and drive them to dig deeper, cover what has been missed, reach new audiences and involve more people in reporting. Will we get that, or will we get news bots, story-writing software and pixelated anchors? It likely will be neither the journalists nor the engineers who get to decide that, but the audience and the publishers.

E-mail Joe for an answer to your journalism career question.

Coming Friday: The economy has one soon-to-be-graduate thinking this would be a good time to hide out in grad school. I'll offer tips on what to do in this situation.

  • Joe Grimm

    Joe Grimm is a visiting editor in residence at the Michigan State University School of Journalism. He runs the JobsPage Website.


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