Artificial intelligence-enhanced journalism offers a glimpse of the future of the knowledge economy

Much as robots have transformed entire swaths of the manufacturing economy, artificial intelligence and automation are now changing information work, letting humans offload cognitive labor to computers. In journalism, for instance, data mining systems alert reporters to potential news stories, while newsbots offer new ways for audiences to explore information. Automated writing systems generate financial, sports and elections coverage.

A common question as these intelligent technologies infiltrate various industries is how work and labor will be affected. In this case, who – or what – will do journalism in this AI-enhanced and automated world, and how will they do it?

The evidence I’ve assembled in my new book “Automating the New: How Algorithms are Rewriting the Media” suggests that the future of AI-enabled journalism will still have plenty of people around. However, the jobs, roles and tasks of those people will evolve and look a bit different. Human work will be hybridized – blended together with algorithms – to suit AI’s capabilities and accommodate its limitations.

Augmenting, not substituting

Some estimates suggest that current levels of AI technology could automate only about 15% of a reporter’s job and 9% of an editor’s job. Humans still have an edge over non-Hollywood AI in several key areas that are essential to journalism, including complex communication, expert thinking, adaptability and creativity.

Reporting, listening, responding and pushing back, negotiating with sources, and then having the creativity to put it together – AI can do none of these indispensable journalistic tasks. It can often augment human work, though, to help people work faster or with improved quality. And it can create new opportunities for deepening news coverage and making it more personalized for an individual reader or viewer.

Newsroom work has always adapted to waves of new technology, including photography, telephones, computers – or even just the copy machine. Journalists will adapt to work with AI, too. As a technology, it is already and will continue to change newswork, often complementing but rarely substituting for a trained journalist.

New work

I’ve found that more often than not, AI technologies appear to actually be creating new types of work in journalism.

Take for instance the Associated Press, which in 2017 introduced the use of computer vision AI techniques to label the thousands of news photos it handles every day. The system can tag photos with information about what or who is in an image, its photographic style, and whether an image is depicting graphic violence.

The system gives photo editors more time to think about what they should publish and frees them from spending lots of time just labeling what they have. But developing it took a ton of work, both editorial and technical: Editors had to figure out what to tag and whether the algorithms were up to the task, then develop new test data sets to evaluate performance. When all that was done, they still had to supervise the system, manually approving the suggested tags for each image to ensure high accuracy.

Stuart Myles, the AP executive who oversees the project, told me it took about 36 person-months of work, spread over a couple of years and more than a dozen editorial, technical and administrative staff. About a third of the work, he told me, involved journalistic expertise and judgment that is especially hard to automate. While some of the human supervision may be reduced in the future, he thinks that people will still need to do ongoing editorial work as the system evolves and expands.