Posted by: structureofnews | July 21, 2014

Beyond Human

hal 9000“Robot” journalists can’t compete with humans at the things humans do best – Slate Magazine

Slate had an interesting piece the other day about “robot” journalism, doubtless prompted by the AP’s recent announcement that it would be turning to software from Automated Insights to produce thousands of corporate earnings stories. (Business news organizations like Reuters, Forbes, and probably Bloomberg have been automating stories as well, but this underscores how mainstream the technology and practice is becoming.)

The Slate piece was a smart look at the advantages and disadvantages that humans and machines bring to the exercise of producing stories, and it summarizes the state of play well.  Machines are faster, more reliable, better at crunching reams of data, and all that.  Humans are better at bringing in broader context, understanding what might be interesting to other humans, and so on.  Machines are critically handicapped by the quality of the data available to them.  Machines are cheaper than humans.  All of which is true – or mostly true, anyway.  (Machines can be very expensive to run.)

Slate’s conclusion?  Humans are better at producing journalism, as the quote above notes.

Well, sure – but is that the right question?

Horses are more empathetic than cars.  They won’t – by and large – go off a cliff by themselves if you take your eye off the road or doze off.  They’re superior at jumping over obstacles.  They don’t need messy fossil fuels to run.  In short, horses are better than cars at providing horse-type locomotion.  But as a method of mass transportation, they suck.

So – yes, humans are better at producing human-type journalism, and God knows, we need much more of that.  But is it the only thing we need, and what are machines better at producing that the world needs?

I don’t mean to suggest that we get rid of human journalists and replace them with machine-writing software.  Nor am I suggesting that the Slate piece is off-base.  But I do think we need to stop thinking purely in terms of the kinds of journalism we produce – or like to believe we produce – and think more broadly about the information needs of society and how technologies like language generation can help meet them.

It’s true, as NY magazine’s Kevin Roose notes in another recent piece about robot journalism, that:

The stories that today’s robots can write are, frankly, the kinds of stories that humans hate writing anyway.

But to a large extent, that’s because that’s how we’ve defined their mission so far.  We turn to machines to do tasks we’d rather not do, and as a result, sometimes push them to do tasks they’re less than optimized for.  It might be more useful to look at what they do well, and how that might mesh with the goal of better informing society.  As Slate notes:

Software programs can scan a spreadsheet in a fraction of a second. They can rapidly compare the numbers in that spreadsheet to all sorts of other data sets, from past earnings reports to historical averages to the recent performance of other companies in the relevant industry sector. Over time, this ability should allow them to spot trends that human reporters would overlook. For instance, (Automated Insight’s CEO Robbie) Allen says, Automated Insights’ software might notice that a given company’s revenues have beaten estimates every third quarter for the past five years. “Certain kinds of analysis are completely missed all the time today because humans aren’t ideally suited to that kind of thing.”

More importantly, those capabilities can create different types of stories from the current one-to-many, “push” model journalism that humans are capable of.  Machines can already produce personalized reports at scale; they could in theory, at least, publish “news on demand,” pulling data on the fly to answer specific questions people have when they have them, much the way Siri or its Android counterpart give you useful responses when you ask whether you need an umbrella tomorrow; or help you understand what the key factors are in how a result came to be, as Narrative Science‘s Larry Birnbaum explained at a panel I moderated.

In other words, not mimic humans, but do things that humans couldn’t possibly do.  Not be second-rate people, but first-rate machines.

To reiterate: This isn’t to suggest that human-created journalism isn’t needed, or that machines aren’t a good adjunct to human newsrooms. Indeed, integrating humans and machines in a “cybernetic newsrooms” is one great possible outcome, and one we need to pursue more aggressively.

But we can and should also go beyond that, and approach the coming age of machine-generated language capabilities from the point of view of what society needs, and not so much from the notion of how they stack up against human abilities.


Responses

  1. […] “Robot” journalists can’t compete with humans at the things humans do best – Slate Magazine Slate had an interesting piece the other day about “robot” journalism, doubtless prompted by the AP’s recent announcement that it would be turning to…  […]

  2. […] Slate had an interesting piece the other day about “robot” journalism, doubtless prompted by the AP's recent announcement that it would be turning to software from Automated Insights to produce thousands of corporate …  […]

  3. +1 to this:

    In other words, not mimic humans, but do things that humans couldn’t possibly do. Not be second-rate people, but first-rate machines.

    Narrative Science sometimes describes text as “just another form of data visualization,” which I like. It makes clear that the point is to make financial or sports data easily digestible and understandable by people, and text is sometimes the best way to do that, and (parts of) that process can be automated.

    One reason I never automated Homicide Watch is that human reporters are generally faster at doing the basic reporting around a murder than machines. That’s not because the machine takes time, but because police departments and cities don’t publish the information in a timely and usable manner (also I don’t trust police to do my data entry). When the LA Times Homicide Report was automated, it’s reports were delayed by as much as a week.

    Going further through the criminal justice process, covering hearings very much favors humans, because the story shifts from raw data to emotional impact, based on what’s said in court.

    But it’s entirely possible to automate parts of the beat, and really any beat. One of the real wins of the Homicide Watch platform is that it can show a reporter what she’s missing, it nudges her to plan ahead, and in all kinds of little ways, tries to make good habits easier and bad habits harder.

    The conversation I’d love to have about robot reporters isn’t, “Will they take our jobs?” It’s about which parts of the news process can be automated, even in small ways.

    • Chris,

      Thanks for the comment, and I agree that a key part of this process is reframing the question/conversation about what machines can – or should – do.

      The Narrative Science quote is a particularly interesting one; my bias has tended to be with data visualization vs. language generation as a means to present multi-faceted information to people – ie, allowing users to interrogate my data to see, for example, how something might affect them.

      But it strikes me that good language generation can also substitute for some data visualization: That rather than present the answers to my queries in visual form, perhaps they could be done in the form of multiple stories, each machine-generated to address specific questions. And only machines can really do this.

      Reg

  4. […] “Robot” journalists can’t compete with humans at the things humans do best – Slate Magazine Slate had an interesting piece the other day about “robot” journalism, doubtless prompted by the AP’s recent announcement that it would be turning to…  […]

  5. […] his blog post Beyond Human, Reg Chua (Executive Editor, Editorial Operations, Data and Innovation at Thomson Reuters) quotes […]

  6. […] moment in time, is likely to be superior to – in fact, is probably vastly superior to – a machine-assembled collection of facts and context. So how does or should structured journalism […]


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