News versus the machine

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By Meaghan Downs

This column is brought to you by robots. Or soon, it could be.
As Terminator-esque as that sounds, removing humans from the news making process isn’t science fiction.
It is reality.  
A start-up company called Narrative Science allows companies grappling with staff layoffs to employ computer software, as opposed to a staff writer, to format statistics and scores and even create their own angles for an article.  
A sophisticated form of artificial intelligence draws upon common themes of newspaper writing, emphasizing the narratives readers like to read such as the “underdog” or the “season high,” and crafts a computer-generated story based on its access to unlimited data.
“In five years,” company founder Kris Hammond said to the New York Times in an article about his business, “a computer program will win a Pulitzer Prize — and I’ll be damned if it’s not our technology.”
I hate to disagree with someone undoubtedly much more intelligent than I, but that’s just flat-out wrong.
Fear for my job is not the motivator for my opinion.
Rather, years of useless talk about the Rise of the Machine versus often flawed, but superior human-based creativity.
From Isaac Asimov’s science fiction short stories to HAL 9000 to the Matrix, machines have been considered fictional villains in depriving hard-working Americans of jobs and even their very souls.  
For the most part, the real-life transition from skilled labor force to skilled machine force has led to factory efficiency (the assembly line inspired by Ford motors comes to mind), so no complaints there.
Not that this journalist is truly afraid of being outsourced to a Mac motherboard.
Though now I’m wondering why I spent all those years in journalism classes fretting over ethics when apparently, a computer could have done that hard thinking for me.
But when the media constantly harps on its own inevitable demise — no more newspapers, no more trained journalists — it’s hard not to feel replaceable.
Look at recent examples; Encyclopedia Britannica, published in bound volumes by knowledgeable writers and editors for more than 244 years.
Replaced by Wikipedia, the anonymous online dictionary and reference site edited and maintained by a mob with unknown backgrounds and credentials.
But even with Wikipedia, those articles still get a human touch.
Sometimes, that human touch is flawed.
But that’s what makes the act of reading and processing news so enjoyable.
I’m not talking about grammar errors or misspellings.  
I like the fact that when we agree or disagree with a writer, there’s a face we can connect to the byline, instead of lines of code.
You can’t have dialogue with software.
And without some sort of interaction between the reader and the writer, you enter a dead zone. A news vacuum.
That’s a place I’d never want to go, boldly or otherwise.