Replaced by a Robot

I sometimes get asked what I am going to do when I am replaced by a robot. On other occasions, I get emails from people hoping I get replaced by a robot.

Those in the second group typically accuse me of not knowing what it is like to not have a job.

Actually, I do know what it is like to be without a job for an extended period because I was jobless for several years between 2001 and 2004.

I started this blog hoping someone would hire me as writer. The Motley Fool had an opening for a writer and turned me down for the position.

With the exception of the bit about the Fool position that I wanted and needed, I have written about this before on several occasions, most recently on January 30, 2015, in Financial Blogger Profile of “Mish” on Equities.Com.

McJournalism Coming Up

With that journalism backdrop, please consider You’ll be Sorry When the Robot Journalists Take Over by Irish Times writer Jennifer O’Connell.

If you consume much of your daily news diet online, you’re probably already acquainted with the work of “robot journalists”, you just don’t know it yet.

AP relies on a content generation package called Wordsmith to produce some of its quarterly-earnings business stories and will soon be using it for sports coverage too. You’ve never heard of Wordsmith but you’re probably familiar with its work: it produced 300 million stories last year and is aiming for one billion this year. A rival company, Narrative Science, provides content to Forbes, Fortune and others.

“We sort of flip the traditional content creation model on its head,” Robbie Allen, creator of Wordsmith told the New York Times. “Instead of one story with a million page views, we’ll have a million stories with one page view each.”

The cheerleaders for this new technology – who includes some journalists (New York magazine declared that “the stories that today’s robots can write are, frankly, the kinds of stories that humans hate writing anyway”) – claim that it will free journalists up to do more meaningful pieces, while algorithms churn out rewrites of press releases, mine longer texts for insights, or produce entirely personalised packages of content tailored for individuals.

That’s nonsense. As always, “freeing people up” invariably means “liberating them of their jobs”. But leaving aside the prospect of fewer people in employment, the notion that algorithms may end up taking over even the quotidian aspects of content production is depressing, and not just for journalists.

This isn’t just another whine from a journalist on the state of this troubled industry. Well, maybe it is. Journalists in every organisation are already under pressure to produce more for less. I was recently offered a freelance job writing content for a US-based website. Each piece would have taken most of a day and some travel to research, and a couple of hours to write. The pay was $50 per piece, expenses included.

As a news consumer, you may not care whether the copy you read was produced by a robot in 0.01 of a second, or by a human in half a day (for $50), if it tells you what you need to know. You may not care that the humans in my industry are being replaced by robots – although yours could be next. But in the end, it’s you, the reader, who will suffer. Algorithms may be good at crunching numbers and putting them in some kind of context, but journalists are good at noticing things no one else has. They’re good at asking annoying questions. They’re nosy and persistent and willing to challenge authority to dig out a story. They’re good at provoking irritation, devastation, laughter or controversy.

Wildly efficient robot journalists may offer hope to an industry beset by falling advertising rates and disappearing readers. The world will have fewer human journalists as a result, which may not be altogether a bad thing. But the question is: does it really need a billion more pieces of McJournalism?

Will Anyone Be Sorry?

Jennifer O’Connell says “You’ll be Sorry When the Robot Journalists Take Over“.

I wonder how many will even notice.

More importantly, those who would notice are likely not paying much precedence to mainstream media anyway.

Except for Hollywood scandals, murders, and other meaningless but sensational stories, national news needs to be condensed down to 30 second soundbites.

Can most stories be generated by a robot?

The sad truth is “probably” for the simple reason most want to be spoon fed garbage.

O’Connell says journalists are “good at asking annoying questions. They’re nosy and persistent and willing to challenge authority to dig out a story. They’re good at provoking irritation, devastation, laughter or controversy.”

That’s true as well.

So who will survive?

  1. The Robots
  2. The very best at provoking irritation, devastation, laughter, controversy, and asking annoying questions.

Until robots can do number two in a thought-provoking, educational, and random manner that encompasses minority and anti-establishment views, alternative journalism will survive.

Media parrots, however, will be replaced by robots. No one will be sorry because no one will notice.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock