As 2018 comes to a close, influencers and companies are making their predictions for the next year in news media and technology. While a number of ideas have been thrown around, a recurring forecast is industry disruption at the hands of artificial intelligence (AI).
AI is by no means a new phenomenon. The term was coined in the 1950s and mostly referred to developing computer systems to mimic the way that humans use reasoning to solve simple problems. The development of computers throughout the ages has long been inspired by the notion of giving the capacity for thought, logic and learning to man-made beings.
But with predictions that AI is going to be shaking up the industry over the coming years, it seems the opportune time for a refresher on what the technologies actually do, and why we need to be wary of our reliance on them for news media.
What is AI?
Artificial intelligences are machines capable of learning and intelligent thinking, the ability to understand past behaviours and apply them to future problems that need to be solved. It’s the meeting point of computing and psychology, mathematics and engineering.
Once the stuff of science fiction, AI is now firmly implanted in our lives. If you watch Netflix, use Facebook or read news online, you’ve experienced the way that computing has been designed to complement and augment our daily lives.
Today, AI has evolved in multiple directions: facial and speech recognition, smart search systems, digital personal assistants… and the options are expanding all the time.
AI is already part of our everyday
My Facebook and LinkedIn feeds are curated by unseen AI that learn about my content preferences based on what I’ve liked in the past, and demographic traits such as my age and gender. Netflix suggests what I should watch next based on my viewing trends, offering me categories such as “shows with a strong female lead” or “more shows like The Good Place”. These AI make it easier for me to find the content I’m interested in and hide content that is unlikely to capture my attention. I save time on selecting my next TV show and the company benefits from increasing customer enjoyment of the platform, which in turn boosts watch time and brand affinity.
What does it mean for news media?
There’s truth to the claim that AI is impacting how consumers access news media, especially on social media and search engines. Facebook’s algorithm suggests news articles to me based on the mastheads and channels that I’ve shown preference for in the past, or on topics that are likely appealing to me based on my search history and social media interactions.
So what would happen if algorithms like these become the curators of our entire news media experience? Increasingly, the news mix that you receive online will be curated to your behaviour and traits, and the news you are seeing will differ from what your neighbour, or even your partner is seeing.
There will be benefits for journalists: companies like Forbes have begun experimenting with how AI can help suggest article topics, sources and images to writers, and even put together simple drafts.
Should we be worried?
There are two distinct issues at play: AI being used to determine the content of news, and AI determining access to news. While journos like me find being replaced by electronic writers pretty unnerving, it’s fair to say that it is the latter that worries broader society more directly.
Obviously it is better for people to be exposed to a diverse range of ideas and sources, and some aspects of AI seem to encourage people to keep consuming more of the same, more of what they like, and more of what will keep them on the page.
Handing over all editing power to a self-learning algorithm raises all sorts of concerns about “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers”. I worry about the loss of freedom to discover. What about the content I didn’t know that I wanted? Part of the joy of flicking through a newspaper, journal or magazine is the ability to stumble upon ideas and concepts that I’d never considered previously. This kind of serendipity can be stifled when the algorithm wants to feed you more of the same every scrolling moment.
And I find it hard to imagine that platforms will suddenly fire their human editors in favour of an algorithm. I can’t see The Guardian or The Sydney Morning Herald giving over full reign of their news curation to AI. We are still a fair way from human journalists becoming obsolete, even as AI news reporting increases in accuracy and fluency.
Yes, AI will automate the reporting of straightforward news such as sports results, weather forecasts, earthquakes and even traffic conditions. Basically, anything where you can have a template and data input, AI can do it faster and more efficiently than us mere mortals. But what about in-depth analysis, political commentary, satire, opinion pieces? AI isn’t yet up to the task.
But I can imagine that some groups of consumers will choose to opt out of machine-curated news in favour of something with a little more human touch. If the recent ACCC report into digital platforms is anything to go by, there is a significant number of people who are fed up with the collection and use of their data for targeted services such as advertising and content curation.
Will 2019 be the year of AI in news media?
The coming years will likely be dominated by conversations around the ethics and regulation of digital services, including the use of user data to fuel artificial intelligence. But this is one issue of many. 2019 will be the year that we see increasing experimentation with voice assistance such as Siri, Google and Alexa reading the news. It will be the year that we continue to grapple with how to regulate tech giants Google and Facebook that have become so integrated into the way media outlets operate. And it will also be a year of surprises as the world reacts to the unpredictable events and moments of another year in the news cycle.
Is 2019 the end of human journalism?
No. Just like TV didn’t spell the ultimate end for radio, and the Kindle is yet to kill off the book, I suspect that there is still some time before human journalism, editing and news curation responsibility is handed over to JournoBot300.
And if I’m wrong, I’d better start looking for a new job.