As if the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t enough of a nightmare for workers around the world, now Artificial intelligence has started taking over people’s jobs.
Amid several industries being affected by the influx of automation, journalism, it turns out, is not an exception. Microsoft recently decided to fire dozens of its journalists responsible for selecting, curating and editing articles for the MSN website, with plans to replace them with automated systems that shall select news stories. At a time when Indian news media companies are laying off employees left, right, and centre due the Covid-related economic downfall, the possibility of robots affecting our job security further is a chilling thought. Turns out all those Hollywood movies not only predicted calamities such as the pandemic, the locust attack and multiple climate change fiascos, but also robots rendering humans redundant.
But it’s worth acknowledging that as of now AI isn’t taking away the jobs of reporters, but of those responsible for selecting and arranging the news. But who knows when the robots might be able match the grit and instinct of reporters, too?
What if this article was written by a robot? Who will the editors blame if something is factually incorrect? Will Solicitor General Tushar Mehta call the news bots ‘vultures’ then?
Artificial Intelligence is still in its early stages. But it will be interesting to see how it will change the fourth pillar of democracy, especially in an era of clickbait web journalism and shouting matches on Prime Time TV news. Will hysterical anchors in newsrooms be replaced by robots who’ll talk with some sanity?
Or with pre-decided templates and algorithms, making them another agenda-fulfilling tool? Looks can be deceptive — take China’s first AI news presenters “Xin Xiaomeng“, who sports a short haircut, a pink blouse and earrings, and “Xin Xiaohao” who wears a sharp suit and charismatically presents the news like any other news presenter.
Remember Xinhua's first #AI anchor "who" made his first appearance last year? Now he can make more hand gestures and facial expressions! He also now has a colleague as Xinhua unveils the world's first female AI anchor pic.twitter.com/M96OHtV9kN
— China Xinhua Sci-Tech (@XHscitech) February 21, 2019
A blessing for reporters
Using AI in news is not completely new. In several parts of the world, AI is now being used for finding stories mining data, analysis, transcribing interviews, to helping fact check and spotting plagiarism in articles. A French news agency uses AI to detect doctored photos and even teamed up with Facebook, whereas a Canadian agency developed an AI system to speed up translations. Microsoft claims its move to bring in AI was part of its business evaluation.
In such cases, it would indeed be a blessing for reporters and journalists who can then focus on long-form journalism, human analysis of stories and investigative journalism.
AI could be pretty useful in optimising mundane backend tasks. I could be more productive and inspired to do other important things if I could save 30 minutes I just spent looking for the right image. Or letting automation do the task of conducting simple fact checks, or identifying fake news. AI systems are well capable of identifying real sources of news content from artificially generated ones. Identifying fake news is crucial at a time when even the President of the United States is routinely accused of sharing false news. AI can also easily curate news on a website as per a user’s interest or browsing history. Even searching for specific reports will become much easier.
If routine mechanical tasks journalists quietly do as part of their job could be dumped on AI, life would be so much better!
In China and Russia, there have been experiments of hiring robots to present news on television. Some Russian viewers complained that the robot, who could only move his facial features and neck, was creepy. Others said it was the future of news. While some other more suspicious viewers accused it of peddling political agenda.
While there might be the remote possibility that Navika Kumar, Sudhir Chaudhary and Rubika Liyaquat may be replaced robotic counterparts sometime in the distant future
I don’t think humans can ever be replaced by metal bodies when it comes to reporting on the ground.
Take the picture of senior journalist Barkha Dutt hugging a 70-year-old woman stranded in Mumbai alone, waiting outside a railway station, or the many pictures and videos of reporters going out of their way to help stranded workers in whichever way they can. Compassion and humanity are essential parts of being a reporter. No matter how hard you try to desensitise yourself, a part of you will feel that pain. This is why journalism will always be human-centric.
Back in Mumbai from Kerala my first stop was at the railway station. Many migrant workers were waiting for news on a train home. But an elderly woman, Leelavati, 70 years, was sobbing. She is alone, abandoned, needs to get to Delhi. The Story of Leelavati coming to @themojo_in pic.twitter.com/9FoEH4l0Lb
— barkha dutt (@BDUTT) May 30, 2020
Even on television, I doubt bots can bring the same kind of drama and dynamism that anchors like Arnab Goswami or Ameesh Devgan do, although it can admittedly be very jarring at times. I won’t feel that punch when a robot will cut off a panelist to deliver a monologue the same way Arnab does. The ‘nation wants to know’ will not have the same power in an automated voice, unless the algorithm feeds an Arnab-like voice in the system. Similarly, bots will not be able to replicate Ravish Kumar’s calm, yet acerbic take on the country’s state of affairs. AI can help journalists and media houses catch up with tech, but it can never take over journalism.