Artificial Intelligence and the future of journalism
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 Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”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.