End of the road for journalists? Tencent's Robot reporter 'Dreamwriter' churns out perfect 1,000-word news story - in 60 seconds
Tencent publishes word-perfect business article on inflation, complete with analysts' comments, crafted in a minute by a computer programme
Chinese social and gaming giant Tencent published its first business report written by a robot this week, ramping up fears among local journalists that their days may be numbered.
The flawless 916 -word article was released via the company’s QQ.com portal, an instant messaging service that wields much sway in China, a country now in the throes of an automation revolution.
“The piece is very readable. I can’t even tell it wasn’t written by a person,” said Li Wei, a reporter based in the southern Chinese manufacturing boomtown of Shenzhen.
It was written in Chinese and completed in just one minute by Dreamwriter, a Tencent-designed robot journalist that apparently has few problems covering basic financial news.
News of its appearance flew in under the radar outside China, and comes less than two weeks after Tencent unveiled its first smart hardware product: a robot ball controlled by a smartphone app.
It can interact with users through games but is not yet available for commercial sale, according to Tencent's tech news web portal.
Meanwhile, the subject of Thursday's robot-written article was China’s August consumer price index, according to news website leiphone.com. Tencent has kept a low profile on this, with no official issuance yet made about the project.
Chinese media reported that it was well-written enough to send local reporters scurrying to the bathroom as they envisaged the end of their careers.
The article even quoted analysts on the economic prospects of China, which is experiencing a slowdown after decades of rampant growth.
“I’ve heard about robot reporters for a long time, but thought they only operated in the United States and Europe," Li said.
"I’m not ready to compete with them yet."
From big mechanical arms at car factories to production lines churning out the latest smartphones, automation in industry is nothing new.
Even in journalism, robots have been crunching data and writing stories with a cold, metallic tone for at least the last few years.
But the fact that the practice is now being adapted to Chinese-language reports, and adopted by one of the country’s most influential internet giants, could spell the start of a new era in terms of who, or what, produces news and other content.
"Generating news stories in plain language following a certain template is not difficult for computers,” said Wu Dekai, a former associate professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
“There is no reason why we can't do it in Chinese as well."
Wu, the only Chinese person honoured as a founding fellow of the Association for Computational Linguistics, made the comments back in 2012.
Until recently, most of the fanfare about robot reporters has been focused on the US, which each year sees millions of articles written, produced and published entirely by computers.
Narrative Science, a Chicago-based company, has been pouring out clean copy of sports stories and financial reports since at least 2012 for subscribers including the websites of Forbes magazine and the Big Ten Network, a broadcaster dedicated to university American football.
The software powering the robots that write these stories uses algorithms designed to collate data, find patterns and pull quotes from sources by sifting through reams of material, including that found online.
The algorithms then learn to identify "turning points" - the most dramatic moments in a sports game or a business transaction, and highlight them.
"We can build hundreds or even thousands of templates for different types of surprises - from sudden share movements to merger-and-acquisition deals,” said Wu.
The robot workers take no holidays, miss no deadlines and produce clean, well-researched copy for as little as US$7 an article in the US. On top of that, the algorithms that power these machines are designed to catch errors and learn from their mistakes.
Yet pundits remains split over just how far this can go, or within what timeframe. Some claim it will take decades before the robot writers can broaden their compass to include more creative work, for example investigative or human interest stories.
Others say we are on the cusp of making human reporters more or less obsolete.
In an interview with Wired magazine a few years ago, Narrative Science co-founder Kris Hammond predicted that "more than 90 per cent" of the news in the US would be written by computer programmes by 2027.
When quizzed on how long it would take for his robot to win a Pulitzer Prize, Hammond, at the time a professor of computer science and journalism at Northwestern University, unblinkingly answered: "Five years".
That was three years ago.
More worryingly for local Chinese reporters, the threat to their careers may dwarf the one faced by their peers in other countries.
“You know, many reporters working for government-run newspapers across the country usually copy and paste the statements and news press. They are not allowed to express doubt or really investigate reports against the authorities,” said one Chinese reporter based in Guangzhou.
“So robot reporters could easily replace a lot of Chinese reporters like this nationwide."