Can a robot replace a reporter?Sixteenth-century English clergyman William Lee invented the first stocking frame knitting machine. He thought that his invention would free women from knitting stockings and allow them to focus on religion. When he completed the machine, he applied for a patent, and it was reported to Queen Elizabeth I. Instead of praising his contribution to the “creative economy,” the Queen was furious. “Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars.”
While it is widely understood that she wasn’t sincerely concerned for the people but more worried about riots as a result of unemployment, the queen indeed had insight on the dangers of automation.
I’ve heard about computer programs that write news articles, and a version has been made in Korea. Seoul National University’s communications department research team built software that writes news articles based on professional baseball game results. It is already providing stories on Facebook. It not only reports the scores and statistics, it also provides analytical elements like “dramatic result” or “trapped in repeated losses.” Business articles for the Associated Press and earthquake-related news for the LA Times are written by computers.
While they follow certain algorithms to analyze information input, these programs surpass reporters in terms of accuracy and speed. They never miss deadlines or make mistakes in spelling or grammar. They don’t object to editors and don’t take leave.
It is wishful thinking by reporters to believe that the computer reporters will keep doing only simple tasks. Programs that write quality stories based on entered facts are being developed. They will soon be able to collect facts and sources on their own. It is not that hard for computers to use a database of contacts to call or email the relevant sources to ask questions.
An executive at the Associated Press said that the program was introduced to free reporters from busy work and allow them to write more meaningful and interesting stories. It is similar to William Lee’s belief that people would read the Bible and pray more if they were not occupied with work all the time.
But has automation really allowed people to focus on more valuable tasks? Instead, people have been pushed into the world of competition and marginalization. According to an American market research service, journalism is ranked fourth on a list of professions to be replaced by robots within 20 years. I am fortunate to have been born early.
The author is a deputy national news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 2, Page 35
by LEE SANG-EON