April 17, 2014

This week in robot takeover: they got our news media


robotRun for the hills! Ah! Robots are taking over everything! Just kidding—we like robots these days. But, it never hurts to remind them that we know what they’re up to. If robots have taken control of our media, they should know that it’s only because we let them, and because journalism is too boring for actual humans to be dealing with.

Digiday reports that The Guardian will begin releasing a print edition of their paper in the U.S. this week, and that the content is entirely robot-generated. Based on evidence of human enjoyment—tweets, Facebook shares, etc.—an algorithm selects previously-written Guardian articles, formats them into a template, and sends them off to a printer. The publication, called #Open001, is limited to monthly printings of 5,000, and is only being distributed to U.S. media and advertising agencies. However, if robots and stingy media executives have their way, surely Phase Two of the news media takeover will be much more comprehensive.

Selections for the first edition of #Open001 are sound. The robots focused on popular public figures (“Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg: who are you calling bossy,” “Kurt Cobain: an icon of alienation”) and indulged in only a hint of self-promotion (“Robots and sex: creepy or cool?”).  Gennady Kolker, human spokesperson for The Guardian in the U.S, confirms that the collaboration has been a success: “We’re on mobile, on tablets and online in the U.S. This is a way to get people to lean back and enjoy the long-form content. Some of our stories are more conducive to that print feel. It’s a way to show that audience, here’s what Guardian content is.”

The content, too, can be subject to robot influence. According to American Journalism Review, human copy editors are worried that robots, a.k.a. automatic copy editing subscription services like Grammerly, will be taking over their jobs. “Anyone who doesn’t see [copy editing] as an endangered profession is possibly insane,” says Poynter media analyst Andrew Beaujon. Grammerly makes use of an “ever-evolving algorithm” to check spelling and grammar, and does so at a rate that no human brain could hope to achieve.

Human copy editors, acting as a robot resistance movement of sorts, hasten to point out the algorithm’s weaknesses. “They will never replace copy editors,” says Merrill Perlman, copy editor for the New York Times. “Until they can understand nuance, until they can understand irony and humor, and—I want to emphasize this point—they will not replace copy editors. . . . If you are given a hammer and no one’s ever taught you how to drive a nail in, you might get lucky and drive a nail in just where you want. But more likely, you’re going to end up bending the nail or hitting yourself.”

Alas, the resistance seems to be failing. An American Society of News Editors survey shows that, from 2002 to 2012, the ranks of copy editors in newsrooms have fallen by 46 percent. Part of this decline is due to a decrease in reporting staff generally, but still, somewhere, computers are emitting monotone bleeps of satisfied glee. Robots are even working their way into delivery services, with Amazon initiating tests of its fifth and sixth generation carrier drones, the likes of which we first reported on back in December. Can a drone deliver a newspaper better than a person? Newspaper delivery boys hope to never find out.

Personally, I have no opposition to this robot takeover. After all, the sources for this article came straight from a computer-generated list of news articles, created just for me. Sure, a reduction in human employees might lower the quality and originality of our news. But, robots have some great points too: they are hard working, fast, and consistently attractive—they also never yell. Best of all, when I’m trying to write something, they always tell me exactly what to say.