I, ROBOT ~ YOU, MORON. How else will automated news work?

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Something for the Weekend, Sir? They want to replace me with a robot. This is an excellent idea. In a world of unlimited connected information, it’s about time that the middleman stopped getting in the way. Things happen, facts materialise, they end up online, then you read them. Simple, really. What’s a journalist for?

Even better, El Reg commentards will soon be able to click on a button on their machine to complain to another machine that they have wasted five minutes (or ten for the slow readers) of their lives reading a pointless weekend column written by another machine. The purity of the process is beautiful.

Let me introduce you to the new editorial board:

Youtube Video

In case you missed it, robot journalism caused a bit of a buzz last summer. You might be forgiven for thinking little in this field of automated writing has happened since. Unfortunately, the reason you’re thinking that is probably because the robots have already taken over and are hiding the facts from you. Watch your back! Watch the skies! Watch Apple Watch!

Seriously, the chances are that you are reading material authored by bots every day. The concept seems a bit unlikely at first but the principle is sound. Consider the example of strictly formatted, dependable, easily reportable data such as stock market figures. Websites and newspapers alike report them in the same way: “The FTSE 100 index fell by 2.2 points this morning. The public offering of Amalgamated Durables hit a peak of £2.79 at launch. A total of zero investment banking bastards were jailed for their offences today…” and so on.

Hell, you don’t even need a boffin to design a robot for this junk. The tea-boy could probably set it up in five minutes as a mail merge.

Now, take a slightly more involved example: sports reporting. If you are one of the it’s-just-some-people-running-around-a-field-kicking-a-ball brigade, may I suggest that a career in sports journalism is probably not for you. While football is exactly that – they are indeed running around a field kicking a ball – much of the way it is reported, and indeed discussed down in the pub by fans, revolves around statistics.

It’s not just a matter of which team won the game or even how many goals, but who scored those goals and at what times in the match? How many non-scoring attempts on goal were there, and how many were shots on target? Were there any penalties? Were there any own-goals? Which team enjoyed most possession (as a percentage), connected most passes, blocked most shots, or overturned most attacks? How does the result affect the league tables and the teams’ likely end-of-season standings? It just goes on and on.

All of this could be compiled and written up by a robot. Better still, the robot is less likely to use expressions such as “it’s a big ask”, drone out cliché after cliché like the Match of the Day dullards, make regular balls-ups like Chis Kamara or write utter fucking bollocks like Martin Samuel.

Of course, this raises questions about whether journalism is the same as the bland repetition of facts. It is fair to say that your average robot journalist is still some years away from risking its little robo-nuts to earn a Pulitzer prize for its investigations into child-trafficking in Western Africa. It is also true that robotic reports tend to make a very plain read – but then they tend to be about plain facts.

Take this headlines to a news story yesterday:

Apple Sends Out Invites For March 9 Event, Likely For Apple Watch [Tech Crunch]

This is a factual headline. Dull, sure, And Those Initial Capitals Are Annoying, but I’ve learnt exactly what the story’s about. Now consider the same story as covered by another site:

Nerdgasm as Apple announces 'special event' – ‘Spring Forward' says invitation to March 9th indoctrination session [The Register]

Look, I’m not saying which is better in terms of impartial reporting, but it is clear that one of these two publications will suit robot journalism better than the other.

For me, though, the rise of the writing robots raises two rather different concerns. One is that robots effectively cut out the middleman between marketers and consumers, between spin-doctors and the public, and indeed between conmen and their victims.

Once, back in my computer magazine days, I was sub-editing a review of a blah software package whose product name and fortunes are as irrelevant as they were ultimately doomed to failure. I remember being struck by the oddly up-beat and overly favourable tone taken by the computer hack who had penned this atrocious write-up. Surely he understood that our house style was to be dour, sour and drunk?

So I decided to do what all sub-editors end up doing on a daily basis: rewrite the arse-wipe that bylined writers will ultimately get paid for. For background, I shouldered my way into the testing lab run by our sister title PC Magazine and stole their boxed copy of the software product in question. I had no intention of reviewing the package myself, mind: I simply wanted to check the system requirements and read the blurb that was printed on the back of the box.

Hmm, that blurb looks familiar. Where could I have seen it before?

As you have guessed, the software review turned out to be a word-for-word copy from the back of the box. Really, we ought to have seen this coming: the same writer had previously sent in a review of an OCR package, so he probably didn’t even need to retype the blurb by hand.

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