The march of technology has radically changed many jobs. Factory work has become increasingly automated and roles that involved processing documents have been swept away. And as the cost of processing power falls, artificial intelligence improves dramatically and more and more information is available online, machines are becoming cleverer. From delivering online learning to scanning legal documents for relevant information or automated trading of shares, computer-based algorithms are increasingly capable of replacing people in more traditionally white collar roles.
Judging by recent stories, the next profession under attack is professional journalism. Already hit hard by the free model of the internet and the rise of citizen reporting, journalists now have to fight off robots with their eyes on their jobs. AP has just announced that it will use software from Automated Insights to produce 4,440 robot-written corporate earnings reports every quarter. The company argues that by letting the software write basic stories that essentially cover the financial details of the earnings announcement it frees up human reporters to write more detailed analysis pieces – and also ensures it can cover more companies without expanding its staff.
AP is not alone. An increasing number of news outlets are using software to write up reports of matches in minor sports which aren’t popular enough to justify the attention of a ‘real’ reporter. And in California, the LA Times uses a program to analyse data from the US Geological Survey to provide a first report on earthquakes. It is also using separate software to analyse incoming lists of arrests from the police to flag those that look newsworthy to reporters. This essentially works by thinking like a journalist and looking for potential signs of interest, such as particular names or occupations and high bail amounts that can then be followed up.
So, should journalists (and by extension, other writers such as PR people), be worried? There may be a lot of hand wringing about these developments, but I think there are three reasons that the human hack will survive, and even thrive.
1 Robot journalism is all about the facts
At present software is very good at searching for information, collating it and presenting it in a way that can be easily read. If you look at the AP or LA Times pieces they are never going to win any prizes for journalism, as they are basic stories that journalists would knock out because they had to, without really getting out of second gear. Software can do it much faster, freeing up their time for more interesting pieces.
2 Opinion and context is key to retain readers
We are bombarded by facts. What we crave are journalists who can put the facts in context, create a logical narrative, and most importantly add experience and opinion. While, technically, software could try and mimic this by analysing the complete works of Caitlin Moran and regurgitating it, it can’t get across personality in the same way. So real opinion will always beat computer journalism that stitches together opposing quotes when it comes to engaging the eyeballs of readers.
3 Investigative journalism is alive and well
Reporters continue to work tirelessly to expose scandals, often with very little official data to work with. Whether it is uncovering irregularities with the expenses of MPs or child abuse in care homes, a large number of nationally and internationally important stories have only been published because of long term research and work by journalists or newspapers. Computers may well have been used to help in analysis and getting to the truth, but they did not lead the investigation.
So, before reporters worry too much about R2D2 stealing their jobs, it is worth understanding what readers actually value in an article. Yes, they want the facts, but more to the point they want opinions, colour and context, especially if it is personal and random – and at the moment, this is beyond the scope of software.
The news that Cambridge technology leader Autonomy is to be bought by HP for £7 billion has led to plenty of soul-searching and editorialising about British tech know-how being (again) being subsumed into an international megacorporation.
Like many people I’m sad that Autonomy is no longer independent, but it was definitely coming. Autonomy had put itself in the shop window – for example through sports sponsorship of both Spurs and the Mercedes Grand Prix team (interesting that HP is a previous Tottenham shirt sponsor) and CEO Mike Lynch has had a robust/adversarial relationship with the city, characterised by complaints that the company share price didn’t reflect the real value of the business. And HP paying a premium of 64 per cent on yesterday’s closing price seems to bear out his stance.
But this isn’t the end for Autonomy or its impact on the Cambridge tech scene. While overseas operations may well be merged into local HP offices, it makes no sense to shut down R&D in Cambridge as HP doesn’t have any similar technologies within its software portfolio. Autonomy is at the centre of a Cambridge cluster of businesses based on intelligent search (in one form or another) and this can only continue and grow if, as promised, HP invests in its new acquisition.
Add to this that there is now a serious amount of potential investment floating around Cambridge in particular and the UK in general for new tech ventures and, over time, this can only significantly strengthen the UK software scene. So time to celebrate success and look to the future rather than indulge in hand-wringing about British assets falling into foreign hands.
- HP to buy Autonomy for $11 billion (ft.com)