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THE AGE OF THE ROBOTIC REPORTER

THE AGE OF THE ROBOTIC REPORTER

By Chris Tunde Odediran | tunde@odediran.com
We cannot think of mass communication without technology. Our profession has always depended on, and benefited from, technology for the generation and transmission of messages. From bells, megaphones, the printing press, cameras, transmitters, satellites to the Internet, the communication media have followed the trajectory of technological innovations. Journalists have always been using the tools of technology available to them to practice. There is, however, a development that would have a different kind of impact – machines are beginning to practice journalism.
My senior in the department and former colleague, Lekan Otufodurin, set the stage by exploring digital disruptions to traditional journalism. In this presentation, I will build on that excellent start by examining how technology is disrupting the content creation and delivery process. This paper looks at core technology, and agrees with the foregoing argument that journalists need to up skill and try new things in order to remain relevant in a fast-changing world.
*The Fourth Industrial Revolution*
Our world is moving in rapid waves towards a new age which some have named the _Fourth Industrial Revolution_. The previous three – steam engine, electricity and the digital revolution – practically eluded Africa and provided little economic transformation. The new revolution is predicted to affect all societies at some point, and it should deliver tremendous prosperity to those who are educated, ready and equipped.
According to Professor Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, the _Fourth Industrial Revolution_ is fundamentally different from the others, in that it is characterized by a range of new technologies that fuse the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenging ideas about what it means to be human. The _Fourth Industrial Revolution_ refers to disruptive technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, Virtual Reality (VR) and *Artificial Intelligence* (AI). In practical terms, these would include products like self-driving cars, extremely fast Internet, virtual assistants, precision medicine, digital manufacturing; and to us media professionals, algorithm reporting, small robots (bots) and natural language processors.
Most of these technologies rest on *AI*. AI was founded on the assumption that human intelligence _”can be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it”._ (Wikipedia). Machine learning started as early as the 1950s, but was limited by data. The availability of large amounts of data and advancements in computing have allowed AI to take off in the last decade.
Let us start by looking at some common examples of AI that many of us can relate to. You can now type a few words on your mobile phone and get quick word suggestions to auto-complete your thoughts. You can start typing some words in Google or Bing search, and auto-complete will finish it for you. You can also talk to software such as Apple Siri, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana and Amazon Alexa and get an amazing range of fast answers from machine-generated results in spoken human language. During a visit, my sister named my Amazon Alexa device an “Osayin,” a Yoruba word for oracle, surprised by its knowledge and accuracy on almost every subject.
These products were developed with the AI technology in its most basic state. The human and the machine are blending and as the machine learns more about human intelligence, it relieves the human of certain kinds of work – just as the smartphone relieved us of the need to memorize phone numbers. Not only are these simple technologies pointers to a future of automation, they are also quite revealing of our declining relevance as the sole generator and source of news and information.
As a staff reporter at _The Guardian_ after graduation, I spent half of the time at the office in the newspaper’s library, adding supporting facts to the story. The “technology” at the time was to review old newspaper clippings to find past stories that can be relevant to today’s events. What a hassle that was, as the chief sub-editor then, our fellow alum Rasak Adedigba, would scream one’s name across the entire Guardian ecosystem if you were taking too long to produce a complete report for the sub desk. It was a system rooted in human intelligence, slow and grinding, which produced results limited by human abilities.
Owing to technology, in many developed countries, not only is the workplace changing, work itself is being redefined. For example, going to the office has a new meaning today. I work in a global team using technology to instantly communicate with colleagues in every continent, from home. The physical office has become optional, enabled by _Microsoft Teams_ technology. Materials that could have taken a number of days to obtain can now be delivered instantly on one’s computer from across the ocean.
Corporate giants are watching and diving into new technologies, eager to achieve long-term gains in efficiency and productivity. Savvy managers know that except they embrace robotics technology, their businesses will not survive. Therefore, companies are deploying technology that is changing not just the work but the products. Industries are being disrupted and ejected. Mercedes Benz is no longer competing with BMW and Lexus but with Google, Uber and Tesla, who are designing the cars of the future, such as self-driving and electric automobiles running on AI. The engineer who created Tesla and SpaceX, South African Elon Musk, is moving into other areas of engineering. Engineering companies like the one I work for are scared of disruption and working on their own survival. Surgeries are now performed by machines and doctors are wondering what is next for them.
Just like in engineering and medicine, established media companies are equally worried about losing out to a disruptor, and those in the United States and Europe are already raising their game. Robots are today writing stories, doing analyses, creating videos and conducting advertising research, optimization, pricing and bidding.
*Automation in Mass Communication*
Technology adoption in the mass media is crystallizing into terms such as “robotic reporter,” “robot journalism,” “automated journalism” and “programmatic advertising.” These terms have one thing in common: the use of algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI) software and natural language processing (NLP) techniques to produce media content automatically.
*Matt Carlson*, the author of a book I will recommend to all, _
_”The Robotic Reporter,”_ explains how computers use AI to convert data into narrative news text in real time. Carlson posited that the prospect of artificial intelligence algorithms adopting self-learning and self- judgment capabilities beyond their human-created templates is a significant one and concluded that beyond news writing, automated technologies are taking over tasks traditionally performed by human journalists. Carlson was worried about the future of journalistic work, composition news and the foundation of editorial authority, and characterized the automation of journalism as grossly “disruptive.”
*Tal Montal & Zvi Reich* in _”I, Robot. You, Journalist: Who is the Author?”_ opined that through the use of “algorithms, artificial intelligence software platforms and natural language generation techniques,” news output can be generated automatically and, to a degree, autonomously. They then asked, who will own the byline for such stories?
Folks, be ready for massive disruptions to your work. Automation and robotics technologies will affect our profession significantly. In fact, their application to journalism and advertising is not only near, it is here with us. Technology is already able to do some of our jobs almost perfectly, from news gathering, interpretation, story writing, editing, photo journalism, graphics generation and layout, TV programming, advertising research to video production.
*Here are some examples of automation that illustrate disruptions to journalism:*
• *Bloomberg*, a financial media powerhouse, uses a program named Cyborg to create automated content. Cyborg spits thousands of articles by turning financial reports into news stories like a business reporter. The same outlet uses a program called Bertie to assist reporters with first drafts of news stories and templates for future stories. So, not only is technology doing the work of the reporter, it is aiding the reporter, and Bloomberg is raising the stakes against its rival, Reuters, in the financial news market.
• *The Associated Press (AP)*, like Bloomberg, is beefing up its use of AI, joining forces with one of the frontrunners in AI for the media, Automated Insights. The AP has gone from producing 300 articles on financial reports per quarter to 3,700 by the start of 2019.
Below are examples of machine-generated news produced by the AP:
“`TYSONS CORNER, Va. (AP) — MicroStrategy Inc. (MSTR) on Tuesday reported fourth-quarter net income of $3.3 million, after reporting a loss in the same period a year earlier.
MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — Jonathan Davis hit for the cycle, as the New Hampshire Fisher Cats topped the Portland Sea Dogs 10-3 on Tuesday.“`
• The *Washington Post* uses a program called Heliograf, which produced it its first year of release 850 new stories. In addition, the software can detect trends and use big data intelligence to alert journalists to story ideas. The Post won an award, “Excellence in Use of Bots,” for automated stories on the 2016 US elections. While the Post is not replacing journalists with bots, it has stated it will use them to make journalists work more efficiently and deliver faster stories.
• *Automated Insights*, a US technology company, uses natural language generation software to turn big data into readable narratives. It produced 300 million pieces of content in 2013, which is regarded by watchers as greater than the output of all major media companies combined.
• The *Los Angeles Times* created a machine called “Homicide Report,” a robotic reporter with the ability to track homicide information in Los Angeles and include all kinds of data in its reporting. It also uses bots to analyze seismic data and report on possible earthquakes from data compiled by the US Geological Survey.
• Elsewhere in Europe, *The Guardian* published its first machine-assisted article early this year. It calculated annual political donations to Australian political parties accurately.
• The *BBC* is experimenting with Salco (Semi-Automated Local Content), which combines data processing, story generation and editorial approval into a simple “one click” process. Salco works in a sequence of five parts:
1. Process the data and extract the bits of interest;
2. Produce a text story for each data group based on a template prepared by a journalist;
3. Generate a graphic for each story that summarizes the data in the BBC’s house style;
4. Preview each story so a journalist can verify and approve them;
5. Publish each story to the appropriate location topic pages on the website.
The BBC is also developing interactive new analysis with bots (automated web programs) that their editorial staff will design. An internal Bot Builder web application includes a feature for transforming long question and answer explainers into a conversation. This allows journalists to embed components that can exist on multiple stories across the BBC News website.
*The New York Times* reported that the AP, The Post and Bloomberg have set up internal alerts to signal stories. Reporters who see the alert can then determine if there is a bigger story to be written by a human being. It also revealed that the Wall Street Journal is experimenting with a technology to help with various tasks, including the transcription of interviews and helping journalists identify “deep fakes.”
In advertising, AI has been deployed in marketing research, media planning, content generation, sales forecasting and ad targeting. Advertising companies now use “_Programmatic Advertising,_” an automated process of buying and selling online advertisements in an Ad inventory. The technology uses algorithms that analyze consumer behavior and apply the results for real-time campaign optimization. Google also provides wide-ranging machine-generated tools for online advertising through AdWords.
Traditional television is changing too. Two years ago, I joined the cut-the-cord movement, which means my TV is a group of steaming services that are available over the Internet, including YouTube TV (separate from YouTube), ESPN, Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Hulu and some other free services such as Samsung TVPlus. Independent content providers sustained by advertising can now get programming onto your devices, be it a smart TV, an Xbox, PC, tablet or mobile phone, with the power of the Internet. You can also travel with your TV using devices such as Amazon Fire, Apple TV, Chromecast and Roku. While the changes in the TV industry are less affected by automation, they are profound nonetheless and are impacting TV stations, which are likely to become just content providers.
*The Future of Journalism*
By now, you may have asked if your job as a mass communication professional is threatened. Will robots take our jobs and shall we become victims of layoffs? No one can accurately predict the future yet but we should neither be dismissive nor skeptical about technology. About 18 years ago, someone told me he will never use online banking. If he is alive now, he has eaten his words. My opinion is that technology will change how we practice journalism, and re-learning will be inescapable.
Algorithm and machine-generated news will sooner or later redefine the core skills of human journalists. AI will affect every major profession, including ones such as law, banking, accounting, engineering, medicine and even, education. The deployment of AI is already affecting legal services. An American Bar Association survey indicated that between 10 and 35 per cent of law firms used artificial intelligence-based tech tools for their legal work in 2018. The Wall Street has since become just a street, as most trading is done online from anywhere in the world with a vast array of AI tools for forecasting and trading. Journalism will not be an exclusion.
Although editors and media managers know that machine-generated reporting is not without its limitations, most have accepted that technology would benefit journalism. The Associated Press estimates that AI has helped to free up about 20 per cent of the reporter’s time, allowing them to focus more on news analysis rather than fact-checking, the kind of task that I mentioned earlier we performed daily at The Guardian. The AP’s Director of News Partnerships, Lisa Gibbs, captured the future of journalism better when she said, “_The work of journalism is creative, it’s about curiosity, it’s about storytelling, it’s about digging and holding governments accountable, it’s critical thinking, it’s judgement – and that is where we want our journalists spending their energy.”_
Some journalists will lose their jobs, without a doubt. However, there is good news: history tells us that while technology wipes some jobs, it creates many more new and better-paying jobs. But the advantage is to those who learn relevant skills. For instance, it is the editorial staff at the BBC who are creating tiny robots for their website. There should be new jobs for journalists, from automation programmers to analysts, data scientists, independent media content producers, advertisers and roles we cannot yet conceive.
Our universities cannot continue to teach the same courses in the age of the machine. They should begin to offer training that is relevant to the world we are beginning to live in. American universities are beginning to introduce new majors such as entertainment management, cybersecurity, exercise science, game, technical writing and interactive media design. Nigerian universities should do the same. The Department of Mass Communication, University of Lagos, should lead the pack.
Those who position themselves for a new way of working will survive. Recently, I attended an MIT- organized World Bank online training on _”The Future of Work.”_ I encourage everyone to enroll in that free 6-week course at: _https://olc.worldbank.org/content/future-work-preparing-disruption._
The World Bank’s position is that while technology disruption will take time to affect emerging economies such as Nigeria where cutting-edge technology is not yet available, it will eventually happen. And when it does, the effect will pretty much be as in the developed countries.
According to the Bank, simple and repetitive tasks, such as writing a news story from a press statement, will no longer be required because a computer software will be able to do that quickly. It stated, “thousands of routine and low-skill jobs will be eliminated by automation, AI and digital hyper-connectivity.” Rather, cognitive and socio-behavioral skills, including critical analysis, problem solving, and soft skills like teamwork and empathy will be in demand. These are abilities that technology cannot provide as effectively as humans.
World Bank analysts also concluded that since the jobs of the future will require a different set of skills, the formal sector should be stronger in skills development, so that more people can have the right training and the social insurance that small businesses cannot provide. That is a clue for corporate managers among us here, to explore what training their workers will need in the future.
*Skill Development*
The take-away from this presentation is that we all need to shift into a continual learning mode to acquire skills that will be needed for modern journalism. Basic computing skills are a good start but are going to be inadequate. Media professionals – be it reporters, broadcaster producers, advertising copywriters or public relations specialists – should develop additional skills in relevant areas such as data science and analysis, web programming, user interface experience (UIX) and usability testing.
A journalist should try to compete in the marketplace of knowledge and not be threatened by technology and STEM subjects. I read an “I don’t know maths” comment at last week’s class. Journalists cannot remain just writers and editors. Mass communicators will need every form of skill that the tools will require. And it is never too late to learn. Even in retirement, some of these skills will be useful.
There are loads of online training offered free by major universities that one can take advantage of. MIT, Harvard and other top-ranked universities deliver training through online platforms such as _EDX_ on emerging disciplines such as web development, programming, data science, critical thinking, problem solving, strategic social marketing, digital media, Power BI, soft skills, leadership and influence, digital product management and managing innovations. These are the skills we will need to survive and which may not be available through formal education.
There was a time when you could only publish if you had a large infrastructure and funding. Technology made it possible for anyone to publish news or visual media for instant delivery through the Internet. Saharereporters.com started as a one-man show. In 1998, I created a news website through self-education in my living room. It is now possible to run a radio station from a personal computer and live stream via the Internet. Hundreds of thousands of media producers are making a living through the production of independent videos with basic equipment. Many are making a killing through podcasting and online advertising. These are opportunities for those who can learn.
It is an exercise in futility to dismiss technology with the wave of the hand. We are at the threshold of mind-blowing innovations that will change traditional wisdom. Experts are predicting that we will soon work less and earn more because robots will do more, faster and better, and give us back some time for recreation. I am looking forward to a robotic future, where a four-day weekend is the norm and everyone is paid a Universal Basic Income.
We must keep an open mind, embrace innovation, be responsive to changes around us and find a sweet spot for ourselves as professionals.
Odediran presented this paper to the University of Lagos Mass Communication Alumni Association recently.

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