This is an interesting development.
At dawn on 17 March the inhabitants of Los Angeles were woken by a mild tremor. Less than three minutes later the Los Angeles Times website published an initial piece on the subject, at first sight a wire drafted in haste by a press agency: “A shallow magnitude 4.7 earthquake was reported Monday morning five miles [8km] from Westwood, California, according to the US Geological Survey. The temblor occurred at 6.25am Pacific time at a depth of 5.0 miles. According to the USGS, the epicentre was six miles from Beverly Hills, California, seven miles from Universal City, California, seven miles from Santa Monica, California, and 348 miles from Sacramento, California. In the past 10 days, there have been no earthquakes magnitude 3.0 and greater centred nearby. This information comes from the USGS Earthquake Notification Service and this post was created by an algorithm written by the author.”
The author in question is on the staff of the Times, doubling up as a journalist and computer programmer. That morning the USGS servers received data from various seismographs, translated them into figures and sent them over the net to the journalist’s personal computer. Once there the data were imported by software, which selected the relevant information and drafted an article in everyday English. The journalist, who had woken with a jolt, got up, read the article and clicked “send”, but in fact this sort of text could be published without any human intervention. Next time even if he stays in bed, Times readers will receive the news.
The event drew the attention of US media, because in recent years the Los Angeles Times has laid off many writers, due to financial problems. Putting two and two together, some people imagined they were being replaced by machines. In practice, “robot writers” – with varying levels of sophistication and autonomy – are beginning to be installed, discreetly, by a few media and other business sectors that generate large volumes of written documents.
It means that newspapers can delay their internment by hiring robots.
Will readers ever know? Not for straight news stories that require no analysis.
The robots will produce ever more sophisticated sounding reports over time. They will fool more readers.
What I want is a cheap robot that reads all these articles, and which signals me whenever a report written by a human being comes into the database.