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An era of robo-journalism: The robots are here, and we should welcome them

In the heat of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, hundreds of thousands of people celebrated some of the world’s greatest sporting talents as they wrote and re-wrote history in Brazil.

And as with every Olympic Games, new stars were born. Xiaomingbot, hailing from China, was one of them.

The Artificial Intelligence (AI) robot is no athlete, but it does exhibit super speed. It made headlines as the first Chinese AI machine to cover the Games, publishing over 450 news stories during the event, with some going online as quickly as two seconds after a match has ended.

This worked out to be about 30 to 40 articles a day, each about 100 words, thanks to its ability to pore over the Olympics database and search for real-time results. Of those, the most-read article had some 110,000 views.

While Xiaomingbot was criticised by readers for being somewhat mechanical in its writing, it was also recognised for producing readable content across a myriad of events, at speed – easily surpassing even the most efficient of journalists.

Li Lei, the Chief Technology Officer of search engine and news syndication service Jinri Toutiao – the company behind the bot – said recently that following its groundbreaking entry in Rio, Xiaomingbot has continued to write articles and reports on various other topics, from sports, finance and business, to real estate and current affairs.

What stands out is that Xiaomingbot’s readership numbers are not dissimilar to that of top journalists in the app.

Is journalism dead?

Xiaomingbot is not the only robo-journalist shaking up the industry.

Elsewhere, Forbes has developed Bertie, Bloomberg has created Cyborg and The Washington Post has its own Heliograf, among others – all of them new machine learning tools used to detect trends in finance, produce brief market reports based on templates, and observe big data. Robots have replaced a range of tasks in these newsrooms.

It is easy to see the value that AI brings into journalism. Where producing an engaging and polished paragraph can be time-consuming, Xiaomingbot is able to complete the task in just seconds – without errors, and taking into account highly-searched keywords. This ability, as with technology, can only improve over time.

And robots, unlike reporters, don’t have to be paid a salary, nor do they have to stop work and take holidays.

The question is this: is (human) journalism dead?

Perhaps not – for now, at least. A New York Times reputation did not come with mere reporting. Journalists choose stories that affect the society at large, chase them, and bring them to readers despite all the challenges. They take on figures in authority, cover conflicting zones, unravel investigative stories, and are considered a crucial catalyzer for democracy.

A future with AI

It is no secret that traditional print newspapers are a dying breed.

Many around the world have and continue to struggle with the impact of digital technologies, social media and disruption from digital advertising. As circulation dropped, so have print revenues.

In a relentless industry such as this, where companies compete neck and neck for every single reader, AI now brings speed as a key differentiator. And with time, this could well become the norm.

What this means is that media companies have to take the big leap to embrace machine learning. Rather than be consumed by AI, they have to work with the technology as a means to stay relevant and ahead – exactly what Toutiao is doing with Xiaomingbot.

The same thing, in fact, is to be said for all other industries. This is particularly so in China, which is pouring billions into AI research and development in line with its ambitious goals to become a global leader in the field by 2030.

Already, we see AI at play in unmanned supermarkets, automated warehouses, and even in smart rubbish bins that sort recyclable items as part of China’s nationwide “green” drive. The use of AI-powered facial recognition tools that are used to catch criminals has now been extended to dispensing toilet paper in some cubicles.

It will be some time before the robots completely replace blood-and-flesh workers in their jobs. But at least one thing is clear: journalism, and many other jobs, will take on a different shape and form in the future, and companies that act swiftly and boldly to bring AI into its fold will reap its rewards in an unprecedented era of change.

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