Science fiction, shiny automatons and fake news robots?

In 2016, the Associated Press, after a year’s testing, began using the robot program Wordsmith to generate sports copy on Minor League Baseball. Will they write fake news.


WASHINGTON, July 14, 2017 — News stories concerning an insidious Russian plot to deny the American presidency to the pay-for-play, Russian-connected Hillary Clinton is all the rage among news outlets these days.

In fact, it’s as though these stories were written by the same fake news robot.

A killer robot from the Terminator series of film.

Science fiction promises a future with shiny automatons flawlessly performing tasks for which their slow, dimwitted human masters are incapable. And with new economic realities forcing news outlets to reduce costs and staff, the robot reporter is the latest innovation.

In 2016, the Associated Press, after a year’s testing, began using the robot program Wordsmith to generate sports copy on Minor League Baseball. The AP said it was forced to use the technology because it did not have the necessary staff to cover the 142 teams across 13 leagues.

And earlier this month, Google donated nearly $1 million to the Press Association (PA), a European consortium of news agencies, to develop computer technologies capable of creating “a stream of compelling local stories for hundreds of media outlets,” says the PA website.

They add that the Reporters And Data And Robots (RADAR) program “will create up to 30,000 localized stories each month from open data sets. RADAR is intended to meet the increasing demand for consistent, fact-based insights into local communities… creating detailed story templates across a range of topics including crime, health and employment.”

James Gleick, in his book “What Just Happened: A Chronicle from the Information Frontier,” wrote:

“Computer programs are the most intricate, delicately balanced and finely interwoven of all the products of human industry to date. They are machines with far more moving parts than any engine: the parts don’t wear out, but they interact and rub up against one another in ways the programmers themselves cannot predict.”

“I Robot” author Isaac Asimov.

That unpredictability inspired science fiction author Isaac Asimov to devise a simple three-rule program to protect soft, fleshy humans from their soulless, metallic “servants”:

    1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
    2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
    3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First and Second Laws.

But it appears no such rules exist where preserving the careers of journalists are concerned.

Asimov once noted, “Computers are better than we are at arithmetic, not because computers are so good at it, but because we are so bad at it.”

Not so fast.

Last June, Quakebot – a Los Angeles Times robot reporter working long hours for no pay, benefits or vacation time – announced that tremor-prone California fell victim to a 6.8 magnitude earthquake. Like any good journalist worth his or her salt, the virtual reporter tweeted news of the disaster to the world.

That came as something of a surprise to the good folks of Isla Vista, 120 miles up the California coast from Los Angeles. That’s because the tumbler that supposedly shook their town occurred back in 1925.

The robot reporter’s source was a glitchy U.S. Geological Survey robot that monitors seismic sensors throughout the Golden State.

When human journalists are no more, it appears fake news will be with us for some time to come.

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