My Take

Tomorrow’s news: written, edited and posted by a robot

The Luddites could at least smash up machines. How do you kill a network or wipe out software?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 December, 2016, 11:34pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 December, 2016, 11:34pm

My New Year’s resolutions get less and less ambitious by the year. This year, I just wish to be able to make a living as a journalist until retirement, before being replaced by news-writing robots – or younger and fresher humans.

Our humble trade has never been particularly secure. As A.A. Gill, the great British food critic who died earlier this month, once put it: “I failed into journalism ... Those who can’t do, teach, but those who can’t even teach PE, report, and those who can’t report, write columns.”

My sentiment exactly.

AI penetrates China’s media sector as robot starts writing business reports

Even sensational news these days is not enough; you need fake news to attract eyeballs. Technology doesn’t help. Still, many of my colleagues feel sure machines can never replace our brilliant insights and literary flair. I am not so sure. So lately, I have taken an interest in the history of the Luddites and London’s ferrymen, workers who raged against the machine because they lost their jobs to technology.

When you mention the Luddites at any friendly gathering, someone will inevitably point out they weren’t against technology, but were fighting for labour rights. They smashed up a few weaving machines, but they suffered far more deaths at the hands of mill owners and police.

Even earlier, thanks to bridges and tunnels, watermen who ferried passengers across the Thames for centuries eventually all lost their jobs.

Now, Automated Insights, based in the US, has already developed software for the Associated Press to write corporate earnings reports, and for the news group Gannett, which owns USA Today and Yahoo News. The Washington Post used proprietary software to write hundreds of real-time news updates during the Rio Olympics this year.

News-writing robots developed by mainland internet giant Tencent can easily produce word-perfect news stories in Chinese without an army of editors and subeditors. Google Translate is eliminating language barriers.

But what about insightful opinion pieces and heart-wrenching features? Software can now diagnose more accurately than many doctors and make investments wiser than most fund managers. Emotionally expressive robots are being developed to mimic human contact.

If they can do all that, even if imperfectly, op-eds and features won’t be much of a challenge.

The Luddites could at least smash up machines. How do you kill a network or wipe out software?