Will robots write the news a hundred years from now?

The original text for this blogpost is an article that post-doc researcher Lauri Haapanen wrote for The Institute for the Languages of Finland.

The automation of news has been in the pipeline for decades. However, it still humans that are writing the news. Why is that so?

The most apparent challenge for automation is language. Algorithms are already able to conjugate words successfully. However, the subtle nuances of human language do not conjugate in conditional sentences of “if A, then B”. This limitation makes the language stiff and in the long run rather monotonous.  An even bigger problem is content. Algorithms are producing numeric and highly structured result data from companies, sports and elections. This enables news about these subjects to be successfully automated, including in Finland and in Finnish. However, a real scoop is all about new, unexpected, and hard-earned information. A pre-coded algorithm cannot get the grip of such issues.

Lauri Haapanen

Thirdly, the hesitation of media companies and software developers is hindering the development. “One would imagine that there is a lot going on in the industry,” says news automation researcher Carl-Gustav Lindén, “but with a few exceptions, there really isn’t”. Technology itself is not a foreign issue in the field of editing, as the newsrooms are full of it. However, the talk of “robotic journalists” has frightened human publishers, although “there is no sign that development in automation would have reduced journalists’ work,” Lindén recalls. “We should rather see this development as a step forward in the co-operation between journalists and technology.”

It is certain that “robots” will not be writing analytical and engaging stories in a matter of years or even decades. It is also certain that the collaboration between people and software will be developed. A few Finnish editorial offices are already locating potential news topics from public protocols with the help of algorithms. Why could the same software not also compile background material, reveal hidden correlations between distant variables, produce copies and make different versions of ready texts for diverse distribution channels?

Given the speed at which technology is developing, predicting a hundred years in the future feels quite ridiculous. We are still going to need to select and communicate news a hundred years from now. Perhaps we’ll be transmitting news to human consciousness directly, without the use of verbal language, which we will think of as a useless bottleneck in the process.



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