The Robot as Reporter

I look forward to meeting many staff members at the Los Angeles Times when I begin my fellowship on June 1. But one reporter is going to be especially hard to get to know, or invite to lunch. It’s actually not a person but a programmed algorithm known as Quakebot.

Quakebot was developed at the Times by Ken Schwencke, a real person. It utilizes information from the U.S. Geological Survey to quickly create stories about earthquakes, a common enough occurrence in California to where such a program would be useful. I experienced Quakebot’s handiwork this past weekend following a brief jolting that occurred Saturday morning. The L.A. Now section of the Times published Quakebot’s story about 20 minutes after the shaking had stopped.

image of automated reporting example by Quakebot
An example of Quakebot’s reporting skills. Nice work!

Quakebot obviously aspires to a no-nonsense school of reporting. The posting offered a nothing-but-the facts type of lede that gave readers, in a 20-word paragraph, the “what” and “when” of the story, and an attribution. Bravo!

Schwencke has also developed a similar automated reporting program for the Times’ Homicide Report.

These types of programs are gaining traction in journalism circles, especially in the world of sports reporting. The Associated Press announced this spring that it would use Wordsmith to generate sports game stories. Wordsmith, on its website, promises to turn “big data into narrative reports” by spotting patterns in the information. If this sounds a lot like what the human variety of sports reporter does, that’s right. Automated reporting programs can craft a decent sports game story in the time it takes a human sports writer to fetch a post-game donut. And these computer programs don’t require costly health care, or submit expense reports.

When I first heard of these types of automated reporting programs about a decade ago, I laughed at the idea than robots could replace people as reporters. As I read the serviceable report by Quakebot of last weekend’s earthquake, the idea is not so easily dismissed. Artificial intelligence has made great strides in recent years. The computer Watson killed on “Jeopardy!” not too long ago. And the folks at Wordsmith have added some sophisticated stylings to their program so that its reports don’t sound so, well, robotic.

With reporter jobs already threatened in many newsrooms, now comes news of another  potential risk: losing your job to a machine. This is one trend I will watch closely when I take my turn at L.A. Now, where the goal is to generate concise breaking news stories and upload them quickly to the Times website.  If robots are going to begin a takeover of the modern newsroom, the breaking news department will be the first line of assault.

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