In recent years, the digital media landscape has seen an array of trends—the rise of clickbait and fluff articles emerging from ad-generated revenue models, and positive feedback loops created by social media middlemen in the grand scheme of timeline catering. Changes in business models led to the thriving success of some and the bankruptcy of others. Throughout this volatility, the world of journalism has been disrupted by technology just like any other industry, and with that, the era of digitisation might have saved the dying world of the newspaper, but the introduction of AI journalism might very well be able to provide the news industry with a solution to its newest problem: keeping up with the speed of information.
In many main news publications, AI has been a crucial aspect of their growth strategy for the last few years. The immediate creation of financial reports, sports articles, and pieces focused on national disaster are being handed over to our machine counterparts. Soon, robot journalism will seep into just about anything that falls under some sort of numbers-based reporting.
The rise of machine-generated journalism is inevitable, and one that we shouldn’t want to push away. Currently, about one-third of all content on Bloomberg News uses some sort of automated technology, while Forbes is testing out an AI technology that will help create rough drafts and templates for reporters. The WSJ and Dow Jones are both experimenting with technology that can transcribe interviews, and Wired constantly plays around with AI written science fiction stories and scripts. Some extremities have even seen an attempt at replacing human news anchors with machine ones, like the recently introduced AI news anchor in China.
With the world around us bursting with upgrades, it seems that gradually everything around us is becoming excitingly infused with the technology of the future. Within this constant tech conversation, the world of news and its gizmos is no exception. What the use of AI journalism in some of the world’s staple media publishers shows is just how much more intrinsically connected robots are to journalism than we currently assume. So why is our initial feeling towards robot written articles ones of uneasiness?
At the end of the day, if done properly, AI is able to crunch numbers better and faster than we’ll ever be able to. As robot generated journalism takes over the responsibility of producing these reports and articles, journalists will have more time to tackle investigative, in-depth pieces that demand humility and a moral compass (so you would hope). Arguably, now more than ever there is a need for journalists to be able to provide think-pieces that hold governments and powerful players accountable.
The integration of AI journalism will quite possibly lead to a strengthened trust in news and journalism, as the intelligence landscape of news outlets becomes more competitive. The journalistic standard has and always will stay the same, and the integration of AI will only help us better achieve that level of standard.
With the current pattern of those consuming the news being reading small, mainstream, information-heavy pieces, the focus has been on utilising human capital to create those repetitive and simple pieces. With the projected use of automation though, computer-authored journalism will give way for journalists to pursue less mechanical stories, and focus instead on ones that are of higher quality and of a more investigative nature.
The upcoming technological reshaping in the newsroom is going to be incredibly disruptive. Robots will be able to automate certain aspects of reporters and their jobs, but more importantly, augment their abilities to do real investigative, opinion-based journalism. With the automation of redundant and labour-intensive reports, the availability of human capital to focus on less repetitive work will result in humans being able to do what we do best: having an opinion, providing perspectives, being curious, and extracting some sense other than numbers and figures from what’s happening around us.
If you thought that Fox News is as scary as news channels can get, you better think again. Earlier this month, Chinese news agency Xinhua aired its (and the world’s) first ‘AI’ news anchor, a digital version of real-world Xinhua news anchor Qiu Hao. “This is my very first day at Xinhua News Agency,” declared the impeccably dressed artificial news anchor, who then congratulated himself for his ability to “tirelessly” deliver news, in both English and Chinese, 24/7. But as viewers across China, as well as around the world, eye Digital Hao with awe, some have already questioned whether he truly constitutes an AI breakthrough and whether his emergence means good or bad news for the world of media.
Xinhua’s anchor was developed through machine learning that imitates the voice, facial expressions and gestures of real-life broadcasters in order to forge what the company defines as “a lifelike image instead of a cold robot.” Yet despite Xinhua’s best efforts to simulate an actual human, many complain that the viewing experience of the ‘AI’ anchor isn’t so pleasing due to his flat, arrhythmic, and monotonic delivery.
His questionable imitation of human expression isn’t the digital anchor’s only problem. As pointed out by Will Knight, a senior editor for AI at MIT Technology Review, Xinhua’s virtual anchor is hardly an example of true AI. Knight argues that while machine learning enabled the news agency to come very close to flawlessly mimicking a real-life news persona, they still must feed the text to his virtual alter ego. “We should… always be really careful I think about the use of the term AI, and in this context you don’t want to suggest that this anchor is actually exhibiting any intelligence, because it’s not, it’s just like a kind of very sophisticated digital puppet,” Knight said to CNBC, “What actually creates those images and the movement of the lips and the voice of this anchor is using algorithms that are related to artificial intelligence. But to call this an AI anchor is slightly overselling it.”
Other than misrepresenting the field of AI and diverting the public further away from the true core and purpose of its research, Xinhua’s brand of virtual news anchors risks diminishing the quality of the news itself, seeing as the ‘person’ delivering them is incapable of intelligent analysis. Seeing as most media and news agencies adhere to some worldview, their anchors often deliver the content through the filter of their socio-political affiliation. And while this practice flavours news with a considerable degree of bias, it also helps the viewer engage in a more profound analysis of the events, as opposed to mindlessly digesting them as passive consumers of information.
News anchors draw our focus to particular issues as they surface and shed light on aspects of them we wouldn’t otherwise consider; they have the power to humanise stories and situate them within a broader context. But Digital Hao and his fellow virtualites stifle this type of analysis of news and essentially grant those behind the scenes who feed them the information absolute power over crafting the content viewers are exposed to without owing to the responsibility of actually delivering it. Then again, for the Chinese Communist Party this is of course a desirable outcome. And although in the West freedom of speech is still not as brutally infringed upon as in China, we’d be foolish to think that there aren’t characters in power here who are drooling at the thought of gaining full control over our intake of news.
Knight and his fellows bash Xinhua’s virtual anchor for being a sham AI, incapable of real intelligence and a servant of autocrats who wish to limit any type of unwanted analysis of the news. While their claims are legit, wouldn’t the alternative be even more terrifying? What if we finally managed to manufacture a computer programme actually capable of intelligently analysing written text and such technology was utilised to deliver news to the masses? Could true AI news anchors be trusted to exercise sound judgement, honesty and transparency as they narrate our societies’ stories? This may still be far down the road, but it is safe to predict that a digital ‘24/7’ Jeanine Pirro would mark the beginning of the apocalypse.