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Thomson hires computers to write news

The man-machine

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To date, advances in automation have favoured journalists and generally made our jobs easier. Voice recorders mean we don't have to learn shorthand, wordprocessors mean we don't have to be good typists...or spellers...and voicemail means that some of us can, allegedly, tap into the messages of others.

But today my technological complacency was shattered on discovering that Thomson Financial, the US newswire, has hired computers to write articles. The old reporter's saw is that good news is no news, and this is certainly news to me.

Thomson has built some computer programs at $150k-$200k a pop to deliver automated articles on US market news. The programs can publish a news story on, say, company financials, within 0.3 seconds of their release to the NYSE or NASDAQ. This is purportedly helpful to hedge traders and others of their ilk.

Thomson's software compares the results with previous results held in its database, so the robot.txt can say if the company did better or worse than expected, the FT reports.

"This is not about cost, but about delivering information to our customers at a speed at which they can make an almost immediate trading decision," Thomson's Matthew Burkley says. "This means we can free up reporters so they have more time to think."

So it may free the hacks from drudge-work today. And we concede that Burkley is talking about US market news, which no-one reads anyway, except if they are paid to do so, sitting in front of their Bloomberg or Reuters terminals.

But tomorrow? According to Burkley, the computer-generated story makers have not made any mistakes. But they are very standardised - just like most US journalists then. "We might try and write a few more adjectives into the program," he told the FT.

Adjectives? Whatever next! Hacks, considered yourself warned. Hairdressers...you're next. ®

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