The Story of ‘Chicken Little’ and the Robot reporter

Although the folk tale of Hane Pene [Danish: ‘Rooster Pene’) was originally Scandinavian, I tend to think of it as American whenever North Americans talk about forms of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The Dane.  Just Mathias Thiele in 1823 published one of the the first written versions of the chicken who thought the sky was falling because an acorn had hit him on the head, but it was John Greene Chandler (1815-1879), an illustrator and wood engraver in Massachusetts, who in 1840 first brought the story into the English language with his illustrated children’s book titled The Remarkable Story of Chicken Little.

A master’s degree thesis by Hanna Tuuolen at the University of Helsinki showed how starkly different people’s attitudes towards AI are east versus west of the Atlantic. Her thesis isn’t available for free online, but Sören Karlsson, the CEO of United Robots, this week described it in a story hosted by the International News Marketing Association (INMA). He starts by first pointing out that a recent survey by Pew Research found that 72 percent of Americans are worried about AI and robotics but that 80 percent of Swedes have a positive attitude those. I’ll anecdotally add to the the attitudes of journalists towards the possibilities of AI or robots producing journalism tends to give American journalists fits. They abhor the idea, seeing it as akin to robots joining the priesthood. Yet Karlsson says the that Swedish journalists who he’s talked with have no problems with the idea and quotes several of them by name in his story for the INMA. In these times when newspapers are in economic decline throughout most of the developed world, newsroom staffing cut, AI or robotic reporting of smaller stories can free the remaing newsroom staff to write bigger stories.

I agree. I know that many major news services (such as Reuters) have already been using robotic systems for formulaic or repetitive forms of journalism, such as equity reports or minor league sports stories — and without problems.

As a media academician, however, I still frequently encounter journalism professors who abhor the idea and who believe that computer algorithms can’t or shouldn’t replace human journalists no matter how minor the stories. These professors abhorrence of journalism by AI horrifies me for several reasons.

First, because it WILL happen. If minor or repetitive forms of stories can accurately be written for less expense by AI rather than by human journalists, it will be done and become widespread. That’s progress. Perhaps some of these professors never spent years as junior reporters writing secondary school sports stories or commodity price stories daily? It can be brain-numbing work, occasionally sapping a human journalists creative capabilities for more important work.

Second, if it will happen, then shouldn’t journalism professors be in the forefront of studying it; recommending how and where it can be best implemented; and teaching how to do it correctly? Why be a luddite?

Sören Karlsson isn’t exactly objective when he advocates journalism by AI. His firm United Robots ( whose company’s website is http://unitedrobots.ai — that ai suffix meaning AI. I bet you didn’t know there is an Internet Top-Level Domain suffic just for AI) manufactures such AI systems. However, I’m objective, having never had any connections to AI forms. It’s time for media academe to lead the way into, rather than fight, AI journalism.

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