Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence and the fu­ture of jour­nal­ism

The Insider - - TECHNOLOGY -

Work­ing in a tech­nol­ogy-driven com­pany and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing first­hand how fast the world is evolv­ing, I al­ways look for­ward, at this time of year, to what Google’s di­rec­tor of en­gi­neer­ing, Ray Kurzweil, is fore­cast­ing about our fu­ture. I may not al­ways agree with his pre­dic­tions, but his track record has been quite re­mark­able.

In his book, The Age of In­tel­li­gent Machines, Kurzweil pre­dicted the ex­plo­sive adoption of the in­ter­net, wear­ables, and that Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence (AI) would beat the world’s best chess play­ers by the year 2000. That hap­pened in 1997.

This year at SXSW, the best-sell­ing au­thor and fu­tur­ist astounded the au­di­ence with his pre­dic­tion that by 2029, com­put­ers will have hu­man-level in­tel­li­gence and that we will merge our brains with them.

“What’s ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing is [machines] are pow­er­ing all of us. They’re mak­ing us smarter,” shared Kurzweil. “They may not yet be in­side our bod­ies, but, by the 2030s, we will con­nect our neo­cor­tex, the part of our brain where we do our think­ing, to the cloud.”

When I thought about that and how progress is ac­cel­er­at­ing at an ex­po­nen­tial pace, I started to won­der what to­day’s young peo­ple, who will be in their prime earn­ing years by then, think about that kind of fu­ture.

Ac­cord­ing to the 2017 Edel­man Trust Barom­e­ter study, by a mar­gin of 2-to-1, our youth fear that in­no­va­tion is evolv­ing far too quickly and is threat­en­ing their pri­vacy, data, and job se­cu­rity — a fear fu­eled by an Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity study that found that 47% of jobs in the United States are at high risk of com­put­er­i­za­tion.

In 2014, one of the world’s most renowned physi­cists and cos­mol­o­gists, Stephen Hawk­ing, who shares the same con­cerns, said in an in­ter­view, “The de­vel­op­ment of full Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence could spell the end of the hu­man race. It would take off on its own, and re­design it­self at an ever in­creas­ing rate. Hu­mans, who are lim­ited by slow bi­o­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion, couldn’t com­pete, and would be su­per­seded.”

But, the ever op­ti­mistic Kurzweil down­plays the threats, pre­fer­ring to be­lieve that con­nect­ing AI to our brains will make us fun­nier, bet­ter at mu­sic, and even sex­ier, “We’re go­ing to ex­pand our minds and ex­em­plify all the things that we value in hu­mans to a greater de­gree.”

It’s hard to fathom some­times what the fu­ture will ac­tu­ally hold for us. With com­put­ers dou­bling their ca­pa­bil­i­ties ev­ery 12-18 months, what does that mean in terms of our abil­ity to com­pre­hend the im­pact tech­nol­ogy will have in our life­time? In only 10 years, it will be 1,000 times more ad­vanced than it is to­day.

What will it do to so­ci­ety, busi­nesses, gov­ern­ments, and our planet? Will we be ready for it?

Al­though I strongly be­lieve in the power of in­no­va­tion, I must ad­mit I also have some ap­pre­hen­sions about the ex­po­nen­tial pace of tech­nol­ogy ad­vance­ment — tech­nol­ogy that could be a pow­er­ful weapon if ex­ploited by ma­li­cious peo­ple, busi­nesses, and gov­ern­ments. But then again, since the be­gin­ning of time, in­no­va­tion has been a dou­ble-edged sword that could be put to good use or abused.

And let’s not for­get, we’ve been at cross­roads like this be­fore — think stem cell re­search and biotech­nol­ogy (e.g. cloning). Both of th­ese in­no­va­tions have been reg­u­lated around the world, along with many oth­ers.

So in­stead of wor­ry­ing about some­thing we re­ally can’t stop, it’s time we put our fears aside and work to­gether to put the nec­es­sary safe­guards in place to pro­tect us, while still al­low­ing in­no­va­tion to evolve and help cre­ate a bet­ter world for us all.

AI is not sci­ence fiction or a topic just for geeks. Cit­i­zens ev­ery­where must en­gage in this dis­cus­sion and de­bate. None of us can af­ford to be ig­no­rant.

What will AI mean for me­dia?

Ac­cord­ing to Ac­cen­ture Con­sult­ing, the In­ter­net of Things (IoT), of which AI is one sub­cat­e­gory, is poised to rev­o­lu­tion­ize ev­ery as­pect of our lives and in­sti­tu­tions, with me­dia be­ing no ex­cep­tion. But in or­der to cap­i­tal­ize on new sources of value en­abled by IoT, pub­lish­ers need to evolve as fast as the tech­nol­ogy — that’s a big ask!

The mas­sive in­creases in cus­tomer data can help, but that also comes with risks. Did you know that me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions are among the most hacked busi­nesses in the world, sec­ond only to fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions? It’s no won­der then that half of news con­sumers to­day aren’t con­fi­dent that ad­e­quate pro­tec­tion is be­ing ap­plied to their data. In an IoT world, me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions will need to make se­cu­rity more of a strate­gic pri­or­ity.

But what about jour­nal­ists?

Will their jobs be re­placed by ro­bots? In 2015, Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity re­searchers said, “Quite un­likely.”

But that was al­most two years ago. With the ac­cel­er­ated speed of change we’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing now that is only go­ing to go faster in the fu­ture, maybe they were a lit­tle too short­sighted.

We’ve al­ready seen one ro­bot re­porter in China, Xiao Nan cre­ate a 300-char­ac­ter ar­ti­cle about the Spring Fes­ti­val travel rush. An­other, Dreamwriter, wrote a 1,000-word rea­son­ably good news story about in­fla­tion, in­clud­ing an­a­lysts’ com­ments — all in one minute.

The Washington Post’s AI re­porter, He­li­ograf, pro­duced hun­dreds of ar­ti­cles for so­cial me­dia chan­nels ev­ery day at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

And more and more we’re see­ing com­mod­ity news in fi­nance and sports be­ing writ­ten by machines.

De­spite what we think about the some­what ou­tra­geous pre­dic­tion of Kris Ham­mond from Nar­ra­tive Sci­ence that a ro­bot would win a Pulitzer Prize in 5 years, the fact is that in 1988, Bill Ded­man won the pres­ti­gious award for his in­ves­ti­ga­tion into racial dis­crim­i­na­tion by mort­gage lenders — The Color of Money was an early ex­am­ple of com­puter-as­sisted re­port­ing and data-driven jour­nal­ism.

It won’t be long be­fore machines will be able to take on more tasks to help jour­nal­ists and ed­i­tors pro­duce bet­ter and more ac­cu­rate ar­ti­cles through AI­sup­ported re­search and fact check­ing — two ar­eas that are time-in­ten­sive and time-sen­si­tive.

The fu­ture is now

By 2020 AI will be­come an in­te­gral part of the pub­lish­ing value chain, but for now, its value typ­i­cally lies in the:

• Pro­duc­tion of data-driven con­tent that re­quires lit­tle in the way of con­text or anal­y­sis

• Pro­lif­er­a­tion of bots for con­tent dis­tri­bu­tion

• Pre­dic­tive newsfeed al­go­rithms that en­hance a reader’s ex­pe­ri­ence through per­son­al­iza­tion

Which re­minds me of some­thing I’ve been preach­ing for years, ad­vice which bears re­peat­ing.

Pub­lish­ers need to de­liver the right con­tent to the right au­di­ence at the right time through the right chan­nels at the right price — a strat­egy that can be greatly fa­cil­i­tated through the ap­pli­ca­tion of Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence.

The right con­tent to the right au­di­ence…

With the help of AI, con­tent can be made hy­per-per­son­al­ized to max­i­mize its rel­e­vance for the re­ceiver. For ex­am­ple, a story about changes to city bud­gets or plan­ning could be tai­lored for ev­ery sin­gle house­hold, giv­ing fam­i­lies per­ti­nent data spe­cific to their unique sit­u­a­tion. One ar­ti­cle with thousands of vari­ants tai­lored for read­ers is some­thing ro­bots could quite eas­ily do.

…At the right time through the right chan­nels…

We’re al­ready see­ing the qual­ity of be­hav­ioral an­a­lyt­ics improve through the use of so­phis­ti­cated al­go­rithms, so it’s not a stretch to imag­ine how AI could soon pre­dict, based on past be­hav­ior, the op­ti­mal time to de­liver con­tent that would most likely en­gage the re­cip­i­ent, on the chan­nel (smart­phone, tablet, com­puter, TV, ra­dio, wear­able, etc.) they typ­i­cally use at that time.

…At the right price

Now I know you prob­a­bly don’t want to hear this, but news con­sumers of the fu­ture are no more likely to pay for con­tent than they do to­day. But don’t panic. There are thousands of busi­nesses even now who fund jour­nal­ism on be­half of con­sumers — a prac­tice that will con­tinue to spread to the four corners of the globe as cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence be­comes a strate­gic pri­or­ity for more or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Many com­pa­nies in the travel in­dus­try al­ready see qual­ity con­tent as a dif­fer­en­tia­tor and in­te­gral part of their cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence ini­tia­tives. In fact, Forbes Travel Guide’s 5-star ho­tel cri­te­ria in­cludes “the of­fer­ing of com­ple­men­tary dig­i­tal or print pub­li­ca­tions [to guests].”


As much as I ad­mire and re­spect Pro­fes­sor Hawk­ing, liv­ing in fear of tech­nol­ogy de­stroy­ing the hu­man race isn’t some­thing I want to spend my time wor­ry­ing about. In­stead, I’d much rather pre­scribe to Kurzweil’s the­ory that though AI, we will be­come bet­ter and smarter global cit­i­zens sooner than we could imag­ine be­cause of the law of ac­cel­er­at­ing re­turns.

That be­ing said, I’m not keen to be the first in line to have nanobots op­er­at­ing my con­scious­ness, but I am ex­cited about how Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence can cre­ate a re­nais­sance of jour­nal­ism over the next decade and al­low re­porters to per­form be­yond the nat­u­ral lim­i­ta­tions of their bi­o­log­i­cal brains.

• Imag­ine be­ing able to learn more, learn faster, build and un­der­stand com­plex mod­els, ex­trap­o­late data, and ex­plore vir­tual and aug­mented re­al­i­ties in our heads.

• Imag­ine the sto­ry­telling that could come from vir­tu­ally un­lim­ited ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion with no key­boards re­quired.

• Imag­ine a su­pe­rior user ex­pe­ri­ence for con­sumers with the high­est qual­ity con­tent in the most en­gag­ing en­vi­ron­ment, sans fake news.

• Imag­ine a new age of jour­nal­ism where trust in me­dia is re­born.

I can al­ready see it!

So, in­stead of wor­ry­ing about I Ro­bot tak­ing over the world, let’s work now to put the safe­guards in place that pro­tect us from the abuse of tech­nol­ogy and em­brace the op­por­tu­ni­ties un­par­al­leled hu­man-ma­chine syn­the­sis will bring to so­ci­ety and the Fourth Es­tate.

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