Earlier this week, one of my business-beat colleagues got assigned to recap the quarterly earnings of Alcoa, the giant metals company, for the Associated Press. The reporter’s story began: “Alcoa Inc. (AA) on Tuesday reported a second-quarter profit of $138 million, reversing a year-ago loss, and the results beat analysts' expectation. The company reported strong results in its engineered-products business, which makes parts for industrial customers, while looking to cut costs in its aluminum-smelting segment.”
It may not have been the most artful start to a story, but it got the point across, with just enough background information for a casual reader to make sense of it. Not bad. The most impressive part, though, was how long the story took to produce: less than a second.
That impossible-sounding deadline was possible because the AP’s story wasn’t written by a person at all. It was the product of a piece of software — a robot, really — created by a Durham, North Carolina-based company called Automated Insights. The AP announced last month that it would use Automated Insights' software, called Wordsmith, to produce up to 4,440 robot-written corporate-earnings reports per quarter, more than ten times the number its human reporters currently produce.
When Alcoa’s earnings report hit the wire that day, the data was instantly compiled by a firm called Zacks Investment Research and passed through the AP's proprietary algorithm, which pulled out key numbers and phrases and matched them against other contextual information. In milliseconds, the software produced a full story written in AP style, indistinguishable from one made with human hands. In short order, the story appeared on many AP member sites, including NPR, Hawaii News Now, and KAIT8. (According to an Automated Insights spokesman, human AP employees were involved in editing and adding to the Alcoa story after the fact, but the AP has said that in the future, the process for many stories will be fully automated.)
By this point, we’re no longer surprised when machines replace human workers in auto factories or electronics-manufacturing plants. That’s the norm. But we hoity-toity journalists had long assumed that our jobs were safe from automation. (We’re knowledge workers, after all.) So when the AP announced its new automated workforce, you could hear the panic spread to old-line news desks across the nation. Unplug the printers, Bob! The robots are coming!
I’m not an alarmist, though. In fact, I welcome our new robot colleagues. Not only am I not scared of losing my job to a piece of software, I think the introduction of automated reporting is the best thing to happen to journalists in a long time.
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Via Chuck Sherwood, Senior Associate, TeleDimensions, Inc