I heard the most incredible story on NPR yesterday. It involved the invention of a robot programmed to replicate the abilities of a journalist.
Wow! What was that sound I heard? Was it a plethora of journalists jumping off the top floor of their newspaper offices? Not so fast, ladies and gentlemen of the Press. It’s a fact that such an invention has been executed by a couple of former college students who registered their invention as Narrative Science. The company, located in Evanston, Illinois, has gone from a college-level experiment into a multi-million dollar corporation.
The company really took off when it accepted a challenge to correct a journalism faux-pas in the world of sports journalism. When a pitcher, Will Roberts, of the University of Virginia pitched a perfect game in NCAA competition against George Washington University, it was reported in the next to the last paragraph of an article about the game! Kris Hammond, one of the founders of Narrative Science, took up a challenge to prove that a robot could write the story as it should be written, in which the fact of the perfect game would be primary. The data from the game was fed into the robot and the story which it produced was far superior to the one which was published in the local papers.
When you stop to think about it, it makes some sense. The data introduced to the robot included the best practices of journalism. The opening sentence should be a “grabber.” The first paragraph should contain the specific information which would set the tone for the article. The grammar, spelling, and syntax should be perfect. The article produced, therefore, lacked the kind of personal faux pas that can occur when a frail human being writes the story.
If you find that story disconcerting, welcome to the crowd. It is a fascinating idea, but it contains all of the qualities which scare the bejeebers out of working journalists. I suspect the cost of the robot journalist would be excessive, but the on-going relationship of a newspaper to a robot does not include salary and benefits. Aging and human frailties are not an issue. The robot journalist can work many hours a day without fatigue or union stewards. It could be a massive savings for a newspaper and a disaster for those men and women who actually pound out stories on a laptop.
Granted, someone has to gather the data from an event and feed it into the robot. But I used to do that when I covered college basketball for my alma mater. I just gave the papers the details and they wrote the stories. Sometimes they actually got it right.
While some people might read this story and discount it, Kris Hammond, one of the inventors, says he won’t be surprised if it will be just a few years down the road when the Narrative Science robot journalist wins a Pulitzer.
Wait! Stop! Don’t jump!
Photo Credit: robo writer