Human journalists, start the countdown to your obsolescence (if you haven’t already, that is). Your inevitable robot replacements are picking up steam — and more importantly, sponsorship — with another show of support from the world’s biggest tech company.
Google’s Digital News Initiative (DNI), a fund that promotes innovation in digital journalism in Europe, just announced its latest round of sponsored projects. Among them is RADAR, a collaboration between the UK and Ireland’s Press Association (PA) and Urbs Media, a startup that creates localized news stories using AI.
DNI awarded the RADAR project (which stands for Reporters And Data And Robots, natch) a €706,000 (roughly $804,000) grant. That influx of cash will be used to create a service that will ramp up automated news efforts, with natural language generation (NLG) AI programs pumping out up to 30,000 stories per month across localized distribution networks starting in 2018. All the components of the AI-created stories will be automated, from the words on the screen to the graphics and images that accompany them.
To start, the AI will be tasked with producing low-level stories from templates created by human writers. These types of stories are important, but not incredibly labor intensive — think sports recaps and earnings reports — and even a human writer would be filling in the blanks with the necessary data to create them, not using actual brain power for analysis, like what I’m doing right now. Journalists, like just about every type of professional, have some thankless, easily repeatable responsibilities. That’s where the AI comes in, at least to start.
Due to the humdrum nature of the AI-produced stories, human writers and editors have no cause for concern about being replaced by robots, at least according to PA’s Editor-in-Chief Peter Clifton, who called RADAR a “fantastic step forward for PA,” in a release announcing the DNI sponsorship. “Skilled human journalists will still be vital in the process, but RADAR allows us to harness artificial intelligence to scale up to a volume of local stories that would be impossible to provide manually,” he said.
The project will require a team of five people to “identify, template, and edit data-driven stories,” about topics like crime, health, and employment, so humans aren’t eliminated from the equation completely — but under more traditional circumstances a five-person squad could never wrangle the full load of 30,000 stories per month. There’s also something to be said about how young writers might cut their teeth on the lowest levels of the copy desk, learning how to produce clean, accurate copy and absorbing the massive amounts of information they transcribe, which could provide context for bigger stories in the future. AI reporting could eliminate that essential experience.
The DNI funding will also be used to create databases to for the AI to pull from, harnessing repositories of data from wider public databases in the UK like the National Health Service (NHS).
While this is just the latest example of AI journalism sweeping the digital media industry, it’s not a new trend, by any means. Wordsmith, an NLG AI program, has been producing automated stories for the U.S.’s Associated Press (AP) since 2014, and other traditional outlets like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times have used automation for low-level reporting.
You might have even used AI to create your own content. Google’s Smart Reply feature was found to have been responsible for up to 10 percent of email responses sent from mobile devices earlier this year. It’s not as sophisticated as what RADAR will provide the PA — but it’s just another example of AI becoming more applicable and creeping into our daily lives.
Journalists like me aren’t exactly mollified by all of the reassurances that the AI will simply be a tool to make our reporting more efficient. That might be the case right now — but what about the future, when the software becomes more sophisticated?
Automation is a major future concern for just about every industry — and, ya know, capitalism as a whole — so when the machines finally rise in the not-so-distant-future, at least us lowly journalists might not be the only ones out of work.