Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Tech Tuesday: A.I. Journalism Is Present, Not Future

When we moved to Duluth in 1986 to start a family my first task was to find employment. Seeking a writing position, I pounded pavement with a portfolio of published freelance work I'd rustled up over the previous four years while paying the bills with a "day job" painting apartments. Over a period of two months I was able to meet people and show my portfolio at least twice a day and occasionally more. Duluth was making a late recovery from the "Reagan Recession" as it had been dubbed, and jobs were scarce, but I was confident that all the talented writers had either found positions or moved to the Twin Cities, which meant I was only competing with writers who had lesser talent. (This self-talk strategy kept my confidence level high and ultimately paid off when a writer position opened at AMSOIL.)

I mention all this as a lead into how during that time I met Howie Hansen, a young writer who was also a hustler. Howie is currently a city councilor (District Four) and the founder of Howie's Blog, which bills itself as "Duluth's Finest News Source." In the mid-1980s Howie produced a "good news" newspaper called Twin Ports People (or something like that) but earned his rent money by freelance writing. The stories he scrapped for paid $20 bucks a pop or sometimes a little more (30-50) with tight turnaround times for deadlines. He covered local sports for the Trib, among other things, and learned how to string words together with an almost machine-like efficiency.

This was the picture that came to mind when I read the following story about a computer journalist in China that wrote 450 articles in two weeks about the Rio Olympics. That was a strange sentence to write because I would prefer to write about a journalist who wrote than a robot that wrote.

Just last week I wrote here about how writing jobs were going to be among the next to go by the wayside as AI emerges. An Ad Age story this weeks announces, IBM Wants You To Know That AI Is Not Futuristic -- It's Here Now.

The Futurism article about the Chinese bot assigned to cover the Olympics is intriguing, however. Evidently the owner of the machine is a Google equivalent with its own advanced AI technologies in the works. "Chinese search engine and news outlet Toutiao is using an artificial intelligence known as Xiaomingbot to publish articles on the Olympics. The bot was able to write a total of 450 articles during the 15-day event."

You're not likely to see anything like David Foster Wallace's Wimbledon stories, but I can imagine that sports summaries like the kind Howie once produced could be replaced, making those kinds of writers obsolete. Even when Howie was at his most productive he still had to sleep once in a while. Toutiao's machine never even needs to stop for a meal.

If anything, this might serve as a prod to contemporary writers to avoid bland prose and lazy verbs. If we can't keep our writing lively and compelling, we're not going to keep our jobs. I don't want to produce words that just any old bot could assemble. Do you?

Then again, if I can find an affordable machine to write this blog for me every morning then maybe I could finally go on a vacation.

Meantime, life goes on.

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