Matthew Waite: Journalism in the dawn of the robot age

95 min

On July 6th Matthew Waite, professor in journalism at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and founder of Drone Journalism Lab, gives a keynote speech in Swedish Radio's seminar "When will robots take over politics and media?" in Almedalen, Gotland. 
 Hera are some of Waite's reflections on robotjournalism and artificial intelligence.

Journalism stands at the dawn of the robot age. How we report news, how we write news and how readers get news is already being done through bots, both physical, tangible robots and software algorithms that live in computers. And it's very easy to envision how this could be used for good.

Journalists around the world are increasingly able to use drones to report stories, harnessing the power of a flying camera with a computer brain. Those drones, in the near future, will be programmed to listen to emergency response radios and autonomously fly to scenes of fires or accidents and get breaking news photos and video before reporters can arrive ... or determine there wasn't a story before a human wastes precious time and other resources.

Someday, news organizations will be able to send humanoid robots into conflict zones, putting the robot in danger instead of a human being to bring dramatic photos and videos from the most dangerous places on the planet. Let the robot do the dangerous work, let the human tell the story of the place, the people and the consequences.
   Newsrooms are increasingly relying on automation to monitor data, assemble stories and create content, doing in seconds what takes a human being hours. Even now, reporters are being paired with algorithms that monitor streams of data.

The algorithm knows when things are different – when there is news – and to alert the reporter, who can then decide to pursue a story or not. Or, if the story is simple, the algorithm can write the story for the reporter. One of the largest news organizations in the world, the AP, is already producing thousands of stories with bots, and in fractions of a second.
   Beyond the news organization, readers increasingly find the way they are getting news is via an algorithm they don’t understand, but an that algorithm decides what they see. The tempting offer, one that interests both news organizations and readers, is that the algorithm will bring you stories you like and are interested in under the name of personalization.

But what happens when the algorithm doesn't bring your stories that challenge your beliefs? What does the algorithm do with stories critical of a favorite politician or movie star? Or stories of violence and war? How ready are we for automation, algorithms, machine learning and artificial intelligence?

How far can journalism really go using bots as reporters? Do we understand the ethical implications? Do we know the consequences? Do we understand the complexities? And what does this mean for our societies? How can a bot check facts? How can an algorithm understand politics and rhetoric? How can a drone know when, by just being there, it's causing psychological harm to the victim of a catastrophe? Can a piece of software ever replace a human being?

Through examples, demonstrations and a series of probing questions, we’ll explore these ideas and talk about the limits and the possibilities. The answers are at the same time amazing and uncomfortable.

Information about the seminar (in Swedish)