Saturday, July 12, 2014

I, Robot, Reporting

It was a major media announcement. At some point in the not too distant future there will be a changing of the guard at the news desk. An older, experienced hand will slowly be phased out, replaced by younger talent more in tune with the changing demographics of viewership. But while you're probably thinking about the story from ABC, wherein Diane Sawyer will be moving aside in favor of a tag-team made up of George Stephanopoulos and David Muir, I'm referring to the announcement coming from across the Pacific. That's because 6,737 miles away from New York in Tokyo, Kodomoroid and Otonaroid made their debut as the world's first news-reading androids.

Kodomoroid, whose name is an amalgamation of the words "Kodomo" or Japanese for "child" and android, and Otonaroid, whose name does the same with the Japanese word for "adult," look to the causal eye as a full sized teenager and adult human. With silicon skin, artificial muscles, blinking eyes and real looking hair, one can argue they look no different than certain real newscasters. But stick some copy in their, er, hands, and it's "World News Tonight" in Japanese. True, at their debut their lips weren't working too well, but they just looked like they had had a little too much saké before the show.

Kodmoroid read news of an earthquake and an FBI raid, while Otonaroid had to reboot herself, passing off her faux pas by saying "I'm a little bit nervous." They were so lifelike that they seem poised to jump over the so-called "uncanny valley," that inflection point where we feel unnerved with robots that come oh-so-close to looking and acting human, but not quite. They even sounded like any reality star who gets a taste of the limelight. Said Kodomorid, "My dream is to have my own TV show in the future".

Both were created by robotics professor Hiroshi Ishiguro as part of his research in the field. The two will interact with visitors at their home in the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, enabling Ishiguro to continue his research on how we relate (or not) to robots. It's not his first effort crafting a lifelike stand-in: he sends a humanoid version of himself overseas to give lectures. His reason? "It cuts down on my business trips."

Meanwhile, in a neat bit of serendipity, the debut of the robots coincided with an announcement on these shores from the Associated Press. Starting this quarter, they will begin to use computer automation to perform one of the most basic and formulaic tasks for any business reporter, that of writing articles about the quarterly earnings of companies. Tapping the services of a company called Automated Insights, they plan to use computers to scrub the facts out of data feeds, and publish articles that look like they've been written by people. The goal is to up production as opposed to downsize labor, as AP looks to increase its output of these types of 100 to 350 word dispatches from 300 a quarter more than tenfold to 4400.

This isn't the first time this has been done, and not even the first time for the AP. They already use a similar system to create text based articles from NFL stats that rank the players' performance. Thomson Reuters uses computers to generate stories from market data, and Forbes uses a system from a competitor to Automated Insights named Narrative Science. In a kind of journalistic Turing Test, most readers have no idea that the dispatches they're reading come not from a hard boiled journalist with rolled up sleeves, but from a motherboard barely breaking a sweat.

Automated Insights has as one of their company tag lines "Our robots write like humans, turning Big Data into plain English." Feed that English directly into Kodomoroid and Otonaroid, and you have entire ecosystem. But consider the bigger picture. After all, humans make the news and humans watch the news. But the news itself can now be processed, digested, scanned, repackaged and communicated all by robots. Some might consider that a problem, having android overlords telling us what they consider important that we should know. On the other hand, there is a different way of looking at it: now it's only a matter of time before those same overlords wonder why anyone should care at all about Kim Kardashian.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't think robots could ever fill this space. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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