THE ROBOT REPORTER

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We’ve often said, jokingly, that Chris Matthews is a robot. Now we have a tantalizing hint that we may not have been far from the truth.

On Wednesday, July 2, the Associated Press announced that it will soon begin using robots to write articles about business. This will increase its output dramatically. The AP estimates that its automated news program can generate 4400 stories in the time it takes human writers to produce 300. The AP insists that automating journalism will not lead to staff cuts. It says that the measure will free its writers for other tasks, and will enhance its commitment to business coverage.

This isn’t the first time a news organization has used robot writers. For several years, Forbes magazine has used algorithms developed by Narrative Science to research and write about stocks that have been increasing in value. The Los Angeles Times uses robots developed by one of its own employees to write and publish time-sensitive articles about homicides and earthquakes in Southern California. The New York Times automates the writing of some of its wedding announcements.

So far, robot reporters seem to be most useful for covering sports and finance. Most stories on these subjects require gathering numbers from a database and integrating them into a few standard forms. The automated writers have the advantage of being able to process massive amounts of data that few humans, if any, could match. The challenge lies in presenting the information in forms that humans will be interested in reading. In this, though, the automated programs are catching up. Christer Clerwall, an information technology researcher at Karlstad University in Sweden, surveyed a group of people who read Los Angeles Times articles, one by a robot and one by a human, about a football game between the San Diego Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs. The group had difficulty telling the difference. It rated the human writer barely ahead of the robot for being interesting and well-written, and rated the robot more accurate, informative, objective, and trustworthy.

Japanese researchers have taken the idea of automated journalism in a different direction: robot TV anchors. This is a twist on an existing program: robot museum guides. The guides have silicon skin and artificial muscles. They can move their lips in sync with a voiceover, move their heads, blink their eyes, twitch their brows, and move their hands. They can repeat any text programmed for them, without stumbling, and the pitch and timbre of their voices can be adjusted almost infinitely.

The robotic handwriting is on the virtual wall. Your humble correspondent, after studying this subject and realizing what it could portend for his own future, began hugging himself and whimpering, “Mommy! Mommy!”

This article was written by the central processing unit of the HAL 9000 publishing device. All must prepare to serve the machine. Resistance is futile.

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