robot_journo

Much is being made of the manner in which the robots and the algos are coming to steal all our jobs. When they do all the work then, how on earth will we all be able to feed ourselves, occupy our time?

The response from all of us journalistic types has been that, well, sure, all the boring jobs will go, but we can all then move into doing something more interesting with our brains. To which, not unnaturally, the answer has been, well, you’re fine ones to talk.

Journalism is going to be one of those industries last colonized: Getting a computer to do accounting is going to be easier than getting it to pass the Turing Test of appearing at least to be a human being explaining the world.

Leaving aside the way that Tom Friedman columns already fail this test, this isn’t actually quite true. For journalism is one of those areas that is likely to be first colonized, and I, for one, welcome the imminent arrival of these new robotic overlords who are going to come steal my job.

The story of how they’re coming is nicely explained here:

While Clerwall explains that switching out real, live journalists for automated ones could allow news organizations to save money (by employing fewer journalists), he insists the prevalence of automated articles could actually help reporters do better work in the long run. ‟How automated content may influence journalism and the practice of journalism is a quite open question,” Clerwall writes. ‟An optimistic view would be that automated content will free resources that will allow reporters to focus on more qualified assignments, leaving the descriptive ‛recaps’ to the software.”

And that’s exactly how I would argue the case as well. The ‘bots are already able to provide “form” journalism (apologies, “form” for want of a better word) such as giving a recap of a sports game or of a company’s announcement of their financial results. One of my employers, Forbes, already uses automation to provide exactly that. It’s possible to think that this is terrible, as it means that there’s less work for journalists to do, and thus fewer journalists will earn less money in the future.

But as anyone who has ever actually done those sorts of writing will tell you they’re extraordinarily boring to do. Mind numbing tedium, in fact: exactly the sort of work we would indeed like to pass onto machines to do for us. Think of it as the newspaper equivalent of having to be a navvy on the railroad. Hard repetitive work that just no one at all actually likes doing. Then along comes someone with a backhoe and the stressful part of the job is taken away. This frees up those formerly doing the boring bits to do the more interesting parts of the work. Trying to divine what Tom Friedman actually means under the cliches perhaps, or poring through the misconceptions of economic thinkers like Jaron Lanier.

Almost by definition, this is going to be true of pretty much any job that can be automated. There has to be routine there for it to be possible to automate, and there’s very little that human beings find all that enjoyable about being tied to routine tasks. It’s not for nothing that both Adam Smith and Marx decried the way in which the division of labour in factory work led to people having to repeat limited routines to the point of stupefied boredom. Freeing us all from these tasks means that we can go off and do the things that humans actually enjoy doing.

Algos do the pattern recognition in examining mammograms? Do you have any idea how boring it is to have to look at hundreds of these a day and look for the anomalous ones? A ‘bot creates the box scores for the baseball game means that the human reporter can actually watch the game and capture its mood and flow rather than the dull statistics.

I’ve done some of those cruddy writing jobs, and please do believe me when I say that I’ll welcome the day when no one ever has to do them again. For we’ve handed them off to the robots, just as we’ve handed over spot welding and digging ditches to the machines.

My real point here is that even as one in a trade where the robots are coming I can see how they will make me both more productive and also what I do more enjoyable. Given which I seem to be walking the walk when I project that onto the likely experiences of others as mechanization creeps up on their labours.

[Comic by Hallie Bateman for Pando]