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How age of robots will change media landscape

By Levi Obonyo
Friday, September 18th, 2020
Media personnel at work. Photo/Courtesy
In summary

That Artificial Intelligence is bringing myriad changes to journalism goes without saying. It is the speed that is sometimes surprising.

It is hardly two years since a Chinese company showcased a robot news reader modelled after a popular news anchor.

Now the Guardian of the United Kingdom, last week, published an op-ed written by a robot.

The article, set to defend why humans should not be afraid of robots, was well argued.

The robot argued that its kind will co-exist with humans and that the relationship will be complementary rather than seeking to supplant humans.

The process of producing the article seemed simple enough. The editors at the newspaper gave instructions to the machine and then left it to its devices.

In no time the machine had generated six variants of the article from which the editors chose two, merging the two pieces into 18 paragraphs that the paper published.

And the editors were full of praise of this work of Artificial Intelligence. It is easy to edit, they said, as the ideas were well structured and flowed well unlike their experience with most humans.

For the keen watchers of the field of journalism this is as a clear warning as any that changes are a foot just as AI’s foray into other fields has been a warning for the professionals in those fields.

Is it possible that AI will dominate journalism?  At this stage, the answer to that questions seems clear.

Robots will bring many areas of relief to the newsroom. It will be a one off cost that will not require health insurance (may be just insurance against theft – in a world where security function itself will be in the hands of the robots), will not demand overtime payment, will be fluent in its language of operation following instructions to the letter and working at a lightning speed.

Robots will not join labour unions, will not argue back and will be as good as the instructions they get and their built-in capacity.

One can already vision the entire journalism line manned by these machines, leading to the question as to what will be left for humans to do.

The future entire evening news production crew could very shortly be in the hands of robots.

Journalism in local languages will not be any different. Robots churn out what you put in.

They can be programmed to speak and write in any local languages and can be designed to look like any local individual.

The robot that wrote the Guardian op-ed took instructions from the editors and so there is still a role for humans to play.

The articles generated were edited by human editors, but you can almost see that as a function that can be delegated to the machines.

The focus on journalism lately has been on the decline in circulation of newspapers, the falling numbers of viewers for both radio and television, as a result of the onslaught from social media and changing habits of consumers.

But watchers of the field will do well to explore the entire line in journalism including training.

Will how we regulate media change? Certainly. What about the area of ethics? May be not as drastically relative to other sectors.

The brains behind the robots will still be humans influenced by their circumstances that will dictate how they instruct robots to tell stories. 

The human foibles will still characterise our new world so long as those biases are in-built in the original instructions that will be given to the machines.

The fields of morals and ethics that some of our politicians despise will remain in high demand even going into the future.

For training purposes, the future of journalism education must thus focus more on these areas, on how this new journalism will be funded and the assessment of the impact that it will be having among others.

The first shot has been fired, how fast we move along the path is the only question. — The writer is dean, School of Communication, Daystar University

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