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Latest update : 2010-03-30

The robot journalists are coming

Here is a movie review, entirely written and read by machine. A scary prospect? Yes, especially if you are a journalist, suddenly discovering that a robot could take your job. France 24 went to meet the two brains behind this fiendish plan: two professors at Northern University in Illinois, USA.

The future of TV News could look like this: two CGI characters giving the news. Their voice, computer generated, still sounds very artificial, but the text looks far more natural. But believe it or not, no human being was involved in the making of this movie review: it was entirely written and read by machine.

This project was born, among others, in the Intelligent Information Laboratory, at Northwestern University, co-directed by Larry Birnbaum and Kris Hammond.

The most advanced of the systems they work on, called Stats Monkey, uses baseball statistics to write recaps of games that are a little dry, but as worthy as any published by real sports reporters. A few days ago, Big Ten Network, a college sports TV network, started to publish those stories online. “That's all information that you would find in a story that any human being would write, says Chris Malcolm of Big Ten Network, except that this came faster and it came cleaner and it came much more effectively.”

After sports, Larry and Kris are going to go into financial and market stories, also a data-heavy field where numbers can be translated into texts. And that's only the beginning, says Kris Hammond: “The machine is going to cover those areas where human journalists aren't covering them, either because of manpower or financial issues, or audience issues. No-one is going to write a story, no traditional journalist is going to write a story that is going to be read by a hundred people, but if the machine is there, it can write that story and those hundred people are going to be happy”.

Still not really reassured, we step out of the lab and across the street to a symbol of old-fashioned journalism, the Chicago Tribune Tower. And here, much to our surprise, robot journalists are not always seen as enemies. “What they are doing in fact might be great for human journalists, says Bill Adee, editor of digital media at the daily, because they are then going to spend time on the things that matter”. In its long history, the Tribune has won 25 Pulitzer prizes. A feat that no robot journalist will ever achieve...or will they?

By Emmanuel SAINT-MARTIN , Nathan KING

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