It may be counter-productive and self-destructive to write an article about this, as I might just be writing myself out of a job, but what the hell — my love for robots trumps my fear (thus far, anyway). I know robots can do all kinds of things people can do, including taking care of the elderly, acting as emissaries for the disabled, and making coffee, but I thought I’d have some time before robots invaded the world of journalism. Time’s up. A robot wrote a story about Monday’s California earthquake and the L.A. Times published it within three minutes.
If I’m jeopardizing my own job by reporting this, then L.A. Times journalist Ken Schwencke is embarking on an even more dangerous path — he devised an algorithm called Quakebot to write an article whenever an earthquake of a certain magnitude occurs. Schwencke was woken up by the quake at 6:25 a.m. on Monday, and by the time he got on his computer, the story was already waiting in the publication queue. All he had to do was hit and button and presto, the L.A. Times had the first coverage of the quake.
The U.S. Geological Survey issues alerts for earthquakes, and when it does, Quakebot gleans the data and puts it into a template. Then it goes into the publication’s system and a human eventually reviews and publishes it. Given that the L.A. Times actually has a column for quakes, this seems like a pretty handy algorithm.
Schwencke has also written an algorithm for crime stories, particularly homicide reports, which then can be followed up on by human reporters. Other news services have used similar programs to report news that can be relatively easily summed up, especially with facts, figures, and statistics, such as sports outcomes. Schwencke says his intention isn’t to replace journalists, but simply to make news and information available to more people faster — especially about something such as an earthquake, which prompts instant questions, fears, and reactions.
A company called Narrative Science teaches computers how to write stories based on data. Its three-part system involves 1) mining the data to “create an appropriate narrative structure to meet the goals of your audience,” 2) creating a story using a program called Quill, which “extracts and organizes key facts and insights and transforms them into stories,” and 3) delivering insight “to answer important questions, provide advice and deliver powerful insight in a precise, clear narrative.” Wired did an in-depth article about Narrative Science and the possibility of robo-journalists taking reporters’ jobs, and I have to say the news doesn’t look good. Narrative Science’s CTO believes that more than 90% of news stories will be written by computers by 2030. Um.
At this point, I think I’ll take this opportunity to assure you all that I NEVER use templates.