Posted on February 2, 2018 by staff

The robots are coming for me too


Last week I went to the cinema to see The Post, where Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks deliver a rousing performance on the importance of free speech and the role journalists play in society.

The movie was all about making tough ethical choices, creating impassioned articles and gaining people’s trust. All very human skills.

Despite all of this, reports of robot journalists show that soon there may be no sectors safe from the machines. In Amsterdam there’s even a system of ‘synthetic literature’ being developed where robots and writers author novels together.

Fears over artificial intelligence and robots taking people’s jobs aren’t new – people were destroying the machines that were set to replace them as far back as the Luddites in the 1800s and probably even further.

That doesn’t make the current technological shift in the way we work any easier to bear.

New research says that automation and AI are going to take one in three jobs in the UK’s northern centres by 2030, with workers in shops, administration roles and warehouses most at risk.

It’s clearly a very serious situation and one that will affect many people’s livelihoods.

To combat the shift the Government is going to launch a national retraining scheme, which is a good start.

It’s easy to assume that this only applies to a small chunk of the workforce though, and that if your job is remotely creative or people-focused then you’re safe. Think again.

Even if your job isn’t going to be replaced entirely – in the last 60 years the only job that automation has wiped out entirely is the elevator operator – many less obvious ones will still be affected.

As a journalist I’d naively assumed that my job was pretty safe but there are reports of robots now writing articles too.

The good news is that those articles – for now at least – are heavily data driven so the more nuanced, colourful reports are still being written by humans.

The robots aren’t foolproof yet and there are stories of bots breaking news that turn out to be wrong, like the LA Times’ bot announcing an earthquake from 1925 as if it was happening now.

There is a lot of scope for us to work with robojournos though. They can trawl through data much quicker than we can, saving us from the most robotic of tasks. That sounds OK by me.

Professor Neil Thurman of LMU Munich thinks the tech – ironically – could actually help to personalise stories in some ways.

“The technology could be used, for example, to do a match report for the home fans, the away fans, and the neutral,” he said.

“You could have three versions produced automatically and sent to different places, or it could be personalised to someone depending on their physical location, their interest level or even their reading level.”

Going back to The Washington Post, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos bought the newspaper in 2013 and it’s become a sort of hybrid tech-journalism company. Among other innovations it has an AI reporter called Heliograf which wrote 300 short reports in its first year.

By using tech it’s freeing up its best reporters to produce better content and has actually managed to grow its team of reporters and readership at a time when, as we all know, ‘print is dead’.

More broadly, the feeling I get when I speak to businesses even in traditional areas is that automation is a great thing, as long as you use it wisely.

Printing company SoloPress has been investing in automation to streamline processes and ensure that the next generation don’t have to waste time learning how to operate the machines. This actually widens their appeal as an employer.

Typhoo’s owners have invested millions of pounds in automation and have also ended up employing thousands of extra staff because they’re so much more productive.

Being agile like these companies is key, as is finding out what tech skills will be needed in the future – the machines taking our jobs will still need people who know how to work them. A focus on soft skills is also vital – maybe more so than ever.

Creative, relationship-driven and unpredictable jobs – people who work across lots of different locations, for example – might be safest for now but tech changes will affect most industries.

The robots might come for many professions – including mine – but I think it’s going to change them for the better.

I may need to learn how to operate my new AI reporter colleague, but the ability to change is surely one of the greatest strengths of being human.