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When robots make journalism

By Michael Leitner, Futurezone on June 30, 2017

Filed under Media & Entertainment

More and more media groups rely on algorithms and machine learning in the newsroom. Articles are also increasingly being written by computer programs.

From Wednesday to Friday, the GEN Summit hosted one of the most important media conferences in Vienna. More than 750 journalists from all over the world gathered in the auditorium to discuss the future of the media. This year, however, it could be a technology conference as well: topics such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence and chatbots were at the forefront.

More articles written than ever before

Journalism is not only published more digitally, but increasingly by algorithm. One of the pioneers of the so-called robot journalism is the news agency Associated Press (AP). Algorithms have been used to automatically generate reports on business results, weather forecasts, and results of the past.

The idea came to a financial journalist of the AP, who complained that the compilation of these reports always takes place according to the same scheme. In the meantime, reports on the financials of more than 4,000 companies are being prepared using this method – more than ever before.

An earthquake that never existed

This also affected the stock exchanges. The AP noted that the intensified reporting made the aforementioned companies much more active. However, they are used only for simple tasks because the robots also make mistakes.

The LA Times recently reported on a 6.8 earthquake in Los Angeles, but it never actually existed. The trigger was a mistake by a researcher who wanted to correct data on an earthquake in 1925.

We will still need journalists

“Many roles are being dismantled and it is understandable that panic breaks out when talking about robot journalism and automation,” explains El-Pais editor David Alandete. However, he does not fear that machines could soon replace journalists.

“We have not developed any artificial intelligence that works completely flawlessly.” As an example, he calls software that transcribes video in real-time and translates into other languages. The translations are generated quickly, but often contain small errors, which must be corrected by humans.

The fear that the machines could make serious mistakes also prevails among journalists. But Tony Emerson, Managing Director for the “Media and Cable” division at Microsoft, is trying to calm down. “Artificial intelligence can now translate language with about 90 percent accuracy.”

This error rate should be equated with that of humans, because even these can sometimes misunderstand something. In addition, the technology is constantly improving. The more data it receives, the better it gets.

Like security services

For Emerson, Machine Learning is not a revolution: “Security services have been using these technologies for years, we are currently doing this.” As an example, he demonstrated the video indexer, which was shown at the beginning of May for the first time at the Microsoft Build. The cloud service can recognize the content of videos and transcribe the spoken words thanks to voice recognition.

But the quality of the videos can also be improved automatically – shaky videos are stabilized – or faces can be made unrecognizable at the click of a mouse. Curiously the recognition of logos is much more difficult than faces – because logos change more frequently. Known persons can be recognized by the software independently and automatically display a short biography. The database already contains more than 200,000 famous people.

Talk with the chatbot

The Spanish daily newspaper El Pais also wants its readers to have a computer program. El Pais printed codes in the newspaper, which can be scanned with the smartphone. If the user has installed Facebook Messenger, the El-Pais Chatbot opens. A chatbot is a program with which the user can interact as with a human being. This informs its users, among other things about current news and the weather. The futurezone is also working on a similar chatbot.

Focus on people and journalism

“There will always be that human element that can not be completely replaced by an automated system,” said Robert Unsworth, Vice President of America, at the NewsRepublic. He still sees the greatest potential in the automation of apparently small and simple tasks, which often cause many costs. “This frees resources for the journalists, so they can devote themselves to investigative journalism or new forms like VR,” says Francesco Marconi of the AP.

Alandete also urges media organizations to focus on what they do best: journalism. For the technology, one is primarily based on partnerships with large corporations such as Google and Facebook – a controversial approach in the industry, as Google and Facebook are mainly earning money through advertising. APA Managing Director Clemens Pig also condemns this approach: “If you get too much innovation from outside, this can become a problem for the organization.”

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