A minor earthquake erupted in Southern California on March 17, with the Los Angeles Times quickly publishing an article that begins: “A shallow magnitude 4.7 earthquake was reported Monday morning five miles from Westwood, California, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The temblor occurred at 6:25 a.m. Pacific time at a depth of 5.0 miles.”
Since that moment more has been written about the LA Times story itself than the actual earthquake. Why? Because the original wasn’t written by a human being, and that is scary.
A computer program designed by journalist and programmer Ken Schwenckle automatically wrote the earthquake story. When the program receives an alert from the US Geological Survey it inputs the data into a pre-written template. The story appeared online within three minutes of the earthquake, according to media reports. The LA Times also has a computer algorithm that automatically generates crime stories. Flesh and blood editors pick through those to determine which ones are most newsworthy.
Much to do has been made about the computer written earthquake story. The South African paper The Times called it a “a seismic event in journalism.” Other headlines lamented the technological assault on the livelihoods of journalists. In a Slate article titled “The First News Report on The L.A. Earthquake Was Written By a Robot”, Schwenke said he doesn’t see it that way.
The purpose of the program according to Schwenke is to get the basic information out as fast as possible. It is up to human journalists to expand on the story. By the next day the news brief had been completely revised into an in-depth media package and front page news story.
While news outlets around the world are playing up the “quakebot” article as a watershed moment, the fact robo-journalism has been with us for years.
In 2012, Wired profiled a company called Narrative Science, a company that uses computer programs to transform raw data into written reports. Automatically generated posts created by the company’s technology were already being published on Forbes.com at the time, in addition to other unnamed publishers. Narrative Science applications are being used to write everything from company reports to sports stories.
Chances are you have been reading robo-journalism for years and never realized it. How long until computers master click-bait headlines and witty puns? This is just the beginning. These programs will only get more sophisticated as time goes on, that is inevitable. Journalist won’t just be competing against each other, but programmers as well. Don’t panic, but get ready.