Automation is a nice way to never interact with anybody. Buying a drink from a vending machine, paying by card at the petrol pump, or downloading something from iTunes instead of going to a record shop—they all have the benefit of making sure that you don’t have to deal with the vagaries and unpredictability of humans.
And these are just the outliers. Research from the Nomura Institute, published in collaboration with the University of Oxford, posits that nearly half of jobs in Japan will be automated in the next ten-to-twenty years. That number makes for a scary headline.
But it’s also misleading and the numbers are open to interpretation.
There are viaducts in that logic, not just gaps. For starters, we don’t know how that 49 per cent is calculated—is it a proportion of professions or of the workforce? Those are two very different things. And the research does not take into account how an economy changes so the people who would have done those soon-to-be-automated jobs may be freed to do something more challenging or creative, creating new professions.
And, as the South China Morning Post noted, “The study found those jobs tend not to require special knowledge or skills.” So what will happen is not that 49 per cent of jobs—that debatable number again—will be lost, but that automation will cut a swathe through segments of the unskilled workforce.
So where will this leave journalism, a profession that seems to bear the brunt of every technological change? As a company specialising in automated text, we have a vested interest in how this will play out. But our position is this—a robot will become a valuable aide to journalists, not replace them.
One of our language architects here at Retresco was a trade hack in London in a previous life. A large part of their job at the beginning of each year was to comb the annual statements of the major insurers, financial institutions, and representative bodies to analyse and compare figures. It was a slog, but there were occasionally some pearls. One year, they found that sales of a particular insurance product had jumped by nearly 460 per cent—a story that slipped largely under the radar.
So think of all the hours they spent sifting through that data. Our systems can do that in the blink of an eye and find out where those bumps in the data exist, pinpointing the way to major stories that would otherwise go unreported. There is a saying that journalism is not just getting right the facts, but making the sure meaning of those facts is correct. That’s what our systems do. We get the facts right so they can be interpreted correctly.
Even the researchers admit as much. According to Artifical Intelligence Online, “[…] the new research shows that robots could perform jobs which involve more repetitive tasks, and at the same time let humans pursue jobs that require analysing abstract thoughts, creativity, empathy, negotiation, and communication – something that robots would have a hard time doing.”
Being able to produce automated reports on the mundane aspects of a reporter’s role means that that reporter can be freed to concentrate on longer-term, more-investigative efforts such as the origins of those data bumps? And isn’t that what we really need journalists to do?