Artificial intelligence and the future of journalism

Online/Offline Column by Nalaka Gunawardene

If you think the rise of giant social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have disrupted the news media industry, wait for the next big wave – automated journalism.

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) in recent years have already revolutionised many manufacturing industries. Now, the impacts are being felt in service and creative industries as well, and the news media industry is not immune.

Does this mean robot journalists could soon be turning up at press conferences? Not exactly – AI is a much wider field than robotics. But business as usual is surely bound to change.

Robotics is the branch of technology that deals with robots, which are programmable machines that can carry out a series of actions autonomously or semi-autonomously.

Until recently, all industrial robots could only be programmed to carry out a repetitive series of movements – this does not require artificial intelligence. Many robots are not artificially intelligent.

AI, in contrast, is an advanced field in computer science. It involves developing computer programmes to perform or complete tasks which would otherwise require human intelligence. AI can tackle learning, perception, problem-solving, language-understanding, and/or logical reasoning.

In recent years, artificially intelligent robots (those controlled by AI) have been built, but the overlap between robotics and AI is still limited.

Another potentially confusing term is “software robot”, sometimes simplified as “bot”.

This means a computer programme which autonomously operates to complete a virtual task. These are not physical robots; they only exist within a computer. A good example is a search engine “web-crawler” that roams the internet, scanning websites and indexing them for search. Every time you use Google, you interact with an AI driven system.

AI in newsrooms

Without much fanfare, various AI applications have been entering newsrooms in both the West and the East during the past few years.

For example, in 2015, it was revealed that the global news agency Associated Press (AP) had started using an automation technology called Wordsmith to generate reports on earnings by key companies. That enabled AP to produce 3,000 such stories per quarter, ten times its previous output.

Lou Ferrara, the AP Vice President and Managing Editor for Business News, was quoted as saying: “Automation has allowed us to free (human) reporters to focus on less data processing and put more energy into high-level reporting.”

According to him, automation in the newsroom was never about replacing anyone’s jobs. Finance reporters were relieved to be spared from tedious work.

Wordsmith is a natural-language generation (NLG) platform developed by North Carolina-based company Automated Insights. NLG is a software process that transforms structured data into plain English content.

The best way to think of Wordsmith, according to its developers, is as an assistant reporter. It handles the legwork, the tedious but important facts and figures, to which human reporters can add analysis and other insights like the human interest.

AI uses in journalism have since grown broader and deeper. Automated writing systems now routinely generate financial, sports, and elections-related media coverage, sometimes on their own and at other times, working in collaboration with human journalists.

In more and more advanced newsrooms, data mining systems now alert reporters to potential news stories and also help produce them faster and often better. AI can handle four of the six key factors that make up a typical news story – who, what, where, and when – freeing up humans to focus on the why and how.

AI is increasingly active at the media consumption end too. Newsbots – automated software designed to harvest specific content from newsgroups or news websites – offer new ways for audiences to explore the vast array of information available. And algorithms that customise the user experience on social media platforms are also a form of AI.

AI news anchors

Meanwhile, China has taken AI in media to another dimension. In November 2019, China’s state news agency Xinhua unveiled AI news anchors on television. They were introduced as being able to report “tirelessly” all day, every day, and from anywhere in the country.

A digital version of a regular Xinhua news anchor named Qiu Hao can nod his head in emphasis, blink, and also raise his eyebrows slightly. It can present the news in Chinese, switching from one story to another and connecting them when needed.

“Not only can I accompany you 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, I can be endlessly copied and present at different scenes to bring you the news,” he says.

Xinhua has also developed an English-speaking AI anchor based on another presenter. Both were developed by Xinhua and the Chinese search engine company Sogou. It involved machine learning to simulate the voice, facial movements, and gestures of real-life broadcasters. The aim is to present “a lifelike image instead of a cold robot.”

The two companies collaborated again to release the first female news anchor in February 2019. Sporting a short haircut and wearing a pink dress, she is named Xin Xiaomeng, and has been modelled after a human anchor called Qu Meng.

By that time, the male AI news anchor Qiu Hao – with a head start of three months – had already presented 3,400 reports and garnered 10,000 minutes of screen time.
Both Xin Xiaomeng and Qiu Hao were showcased at the recent Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum held in Bonn, Germany, on 27 and 28 May.

Edith Yeung, a Hong Kong-based venture capitalist and an expert on internet in China, noted how Xinhua and other Chinese media have already started deploying AI in their media operations.

What societal, ethical, and other impacts could this transition have? Often, there are gender and cultural biases that come into AI, based on who develops the systems under what ethical frameworks.

As Edith Yeung said: “China wants to be the world’s No. 1 in AI by 2030. Does this mean China’s AI can overtake the West’s? It’s not so simple as most of the AI data systems in China are developed in the Chinese language. But we need to bear in mind that AI is only as good as those who build it, and what data is fed into it.”

Redefining reporting

Can the rise of AI in the news industry threaten some jobs of journalists and other media workers? This concern has already been raised.

Nicholas Diakopoulos, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the Northwestern University in the US and a leading researcher in this field, does not think so.

He says that the future of AI-enabled journalism will still have plenty of people around. However, the jobs, roles, and tasks of those people will evolve and look different. Human work will be hybridised – blended together with algorithms – to suit AI’s capabilities and accommodate its limitations.

Diakopoulos is author of Automating the New: How Algorithms are Rewriting the Media, a new book from Harvard University Press out this month. In it, he shows that journalists are at little risk of being displaced by AI. “With algorithms at their fingertips, they may work differently and tell different stories than they otherwise would, but their values remain the driving force behind the news.”

Diakopoulos stated: “Newsroom work has always adapted to waves of new technology, including photography, telephones, computers – or even just the copy machine. Journalists will adapt to work with AI, too. As a technology, it is already and will continue to change news work, often complementing but rarely substituting for a trained journalist.”

When computers entered the classroom a generation ago, there were fears that they could replace teachers – but that didn’t happen. Just as a good teacher can never be matched or surpassed by a machine, a good journalist too need not fear for job security.

As for bad journalists, they deserve the obsolescence that soon awaits them!

(Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene has been chronicling and critiquing information society for over 25 years. He tweets from @NalakaG)