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Speer: An algorithm as next news reporter?

August 31, 2012
Bill Speer - Editor/Publisher , The Alpena News

There are some questions that, well, leave you hanging.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Where exactly is that light at the end of the tunnel?

Does a bear, well, you know ... in the woods?

Will next week's column be written by me, or my alter-ego algorithm?

What, alter-ego algorithm? What in the world are you talking about?

Andrew, my youngest son, sent me an email this week with the title "scary read." I opened the email and there was a reprint of a story that first appeared in the April edition of Wired magazine.

The headline alone had me trembling - "Can an algorithm write a better news story than a human reporter?"

Andrew's world these days is one of research, statistics, math and algorithms. Yet each day it also is sprinkled with strong communication, writing and interpretation. I knew that by sharing this article, he felt it important, thus I gave it a very close read.

In a nutshell, the story tells of an experiment in Chicago where, every 30 seconds or so, a computer making use of an algorithm spits out a story that, if you believe the author, would be of a quality able to be reprinted in most any publication in the world. Stories from the same computer vary from a sports story at a major stadium, the latest stock earnings of a particular company, or the price of tea in China. In other words, the computer is just as comfortable in a blue collar world as it is at a high society fundraiser.

Feed the computer the right statistics and provide the right algorithm, and quickly it churns out respectable copy that is being used in everything from press releases to sports stories, research summations to restaurant reviews. Some algorithms have the computer searching the Internet and social media sites looking for specific keywords, gathering the information it finds, then compiling that information into a story.

As I continued reading, I had to stop and pinch myself. This sounds so futuristic, almost Orwellian in concept. Yet it exists today, and is the real product of a firm called Narrative Science. Steven Levy, the author of the Wired magazine article, asked Narrative Science's co-founder Kristian Hammond to predict what percentage of news would be written by computers in 15 years. His answer: "More than 90 percent."


I am a firm believer in my industry, and its future in our community. I believe the need for strong, community journalism reporting will be just as important 20 years from now as it is today.

Yet I also am a realist, and I understand that to ignore technology and new innovations is foolish - just ask the folks at Kodak. So a story like this is more than just a good read, it requires analysis and contemplation as well.

I turned back to the computer to continue but alas, the screen had frozen. As I waited while the computer churned through its rebooting procedures, I thought OK, chalk one up for the good guys.

Back up and running, I returned to the computer. With a deadline fast approaching, I knew it was time to sit down and hammer out this column.

I sat staring at the keyboard. And I stared. And I stared. It was the curse every reporter fears - writer's block, brain freeze, mental meltdown.

Darn, chalk one up for the computer.

I got back to writing. I was going along pretty well, the column was flowing, but I got stuck on a phrase. I was at a lost for words.

Sighing, I pulled my fingers off the keyboard in disgust.

Oh well, I thought, my algorithm will know the right word.

Let's see if he can finish out this column.

But I bet he doesn't have ink running through his veins!



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