Is RoBernstein the future of journalism? Input!

Declining advertising revenue, slow adoption of new technologies and fealty to a crumbling old model of news distribution were already doing a number on the psyche of the average news reporter. But this one is a

RoBernstein. Not pictured: Wood3PO

pretty low blow. Scientists in Tokyo, who apparently have nothing better to do than jabbing a salt-covered pencil into the eyes of journalists worldwide, like say oh, I don’t know, creating a viable renewable energy infrastructure or attacking the moon or building more of these things that will take on the responsibility of driving your drunk ass home or limiting the number of emails I get with the word ‘fuckstick’ in the subject line, have created a journalist robot that can gather and publish basic information. More from SingularityHub:

Researchers at the Intelligent Systems Informatics Lab (ISI) at Tokyo University have developed a journalist robot that can autonomously explore its environment and report what it finds. The robot detects changes in its surroundings, decides if they are relevant, and then takes pictures with its on board camera. It can query nearby people for information, and it uses internet searches to further round out its understanding. If something appears newsworthy, the robot will even write a short article and publish it to the web.

Hat tip to Alyssa, via KnightBlog

OK, so this article is a bit vague here, and does not provide any examples of work the RoBernstein has produced (“5-8 bit clips minimum; applicant robots should also include a cover letter and several reference programs”) or any information on how it would possibly be used, so I’m not entirely buying the game-changing tone of the article just yet. It’s unclear what counts as “changes in its surroundings,” how it considers these changes relevant, how it chooses which photos to take, what sort of questions it asks bystanders and how it processes the answers. The post’s author hypothesizes the robots could be used in battle zones too dangerous for human reporters to enter.

The author says the only thing left that gives humans the upper hand on right now is the ability to make pithy pop culture references (“Oh snap-bot!”).

So here you might be expecting me to throw in some de laude scriptorum about how the reporter wretches

I totally had this shit. Still in a box in the attic in NJ, I think

with their ink-flooded veins should fight the ignominy of being replaced by some low-grade Johnny 5. But screw that, because everyone who’s put in their dues as an entry level reporter slogging through unceasingly mundane town meetings or high school sports games knows the formula for writing up these affairs is repetitive and simple, so much so that a reporter can often churn out several of these dailies in a single day without having to make extra phone calls.  They can be interesting if you immerse yourself in an issue, as a good reporter should, but they’re still formulaic.

Writing these little bits-and-pieces meeting stories (the changing of a segment of a beach management plan; a consultant’s report on impact fees) are crucial to understanding the bigger picture issues a news organization needs to bring to light (reshaping a major tourist district with new construction; how the housing bubble bust decreases tax revenue and forces those projects to scale back), they are a major drain on a reporter’s time, exponentially more so in the era of constricting news hole,  shrinking news staffs and the general newsroom environment where fewer reporters are expected to do more work for less money.

So the robots want to do the boring part. Does this mean I can focus on weekender, investigations and double-truck spread enterprise pieces? Uh, ok — was anyone complaining when robots took over mine-sweeping duty?

Technological advances are based on economies of efficiency: why should I get in my car and travel to the store to buy a disc to play music on when I can just click a button and get it on my computer immediately? Why should I got to the corner store to pay $2 for the New York Times when they provide it for me for FREE every morning on my phone so I can read it without even getting out of bed and without even completely opening one sleep-addled eye? If technology succeeds in anything, it’s freeing up brain space for more complex thought. And if we’re going to save journalism, it isn’t going to be through bringing people day-old write ups on municipal meetings or car crashes. Robots won’t sit with the mother of a car crash victim to hear her plead for safety changes on a dangerous road, and they won’t build sources to reveal secret CIA prisons.

Saving journalism is going to be through finding the intelligent way to slice through the chaff of every day cable news blather to bring people something meaningful that actually helps them process the world around them. If the robots, the WordPresses, the twitters and automated news feeds of the world can help kick us up to the next level of post-timeliness, I’m not sure we should be so opposed.

Or maybe we’ll all just be overrun with machines screaming “INPUT!!” And then the only way to save journalism will be through Steve Guttenberg.

One response to “Is RoBernstein the future of journalism? Input!

  1. Everything you say is absolutely right. In fact, I was walking into working thinking, “Meeting stories are so fucking banal. … Maybe if we totally dropped inverted pyramid and were like, ‘Write it any way you want!’ maybe more people would read the newspaper.” But that’s stupid. They won’t. But if there were savings opportunities by hiring robots to cover meetings, my sense is those dollars wouldn’t be reinvested humans and their in-depth work. They would probably just be handed over to stockholders.

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