Human vs. Computer


Can flesh and blood beat nuts and bolts in a test of writing and reporting prowess? Machine full o' microchips has something to say about that. Human reporters-as annoying and nosy they can be-may become a thing of the past.

Enter the robot news hound. Fiction will become reality in May 2002 as the Afghan Explorer is let loose, built by those ingenious geeks at MIT. After the Daniel Pearl incident in Afghanistan during March, drastic measures had to be taken to insure the safety of journalists. In order to get the whole story, some journalists go too far. But scientists figure they can use technology such as the Internet, satellite communications and global positioning satellite (GPS) systems to send a robot into enemy territory. A reporter could control it remotely using a PC and a Web browser, and a Web camera would provide two-way conferencing.

See ya later human reporters, right? Bring on breaking news reporter Dell and news correspondent Compaq. Well, not so fast. The inventor of the Afghan Explorer, Chris Csikszentmihalyi (don't ask how to pronounce that), insists that his little rover and its descendants will never replace human reporters. Robots won't be able to analyze event or put an interview into context. Instead, a news robot could be a tool for journalists, gathering information and images from places either off-limits or too dangerous for reporters.

And robots could be used in entirely new ways, creating a different kind of news experience. A Web operation could buy dozens of robots and deploy them around the world. Visitors to the site could temporarily control a robot, allowing the viewer to interact with the news in a whole new way (see ). Don't give up hope yet homo-sapiens. Just look at what accountants faced in the 1920s. Businesses started adopting the first "electronic accounting machines"-old punch card machines made by IBM and Remington Rand. Accountants were shaking in their boots. But instead, the machines automated low-level tasks, allowing accountants to rise above drudge work and develop into the respected, vital professionals that contribute so much to business and society today. Chill out guys.

On the software end of things, humans may be on shaky ground as well. In the latest attempt to automate the news, a group of Columbia researchers have launched Newsblaster, a project that uses natural language processing techniques to summarize top headlines.

"[Newsblaster] grooms information together and cuts redundancy," said Regina Barzilay, a computer science doctoral student who is working on the Newsblaster project. "It allows the users to see information much faster."

Newsblaster extracts nouns, proper nouns and noun phrases to measure similarity between articles and determine when they cover the same event. It looks for similar themes from various sources (such as Yahoo, CNN, Washington Post, etc.). Each theme will generate one sentence in a summary. The software breaks down these sentences and compares them to find repeated phrases, which it cuts and pastes to form a summary of a particular news event. If a computer can do all that with the click of a mouse, what do we need human editors for? Hold your horses, I'll tell you.

Summaries arent't always as coherent as those written by human editors. Newsblaster often assumes that all articles in a particular category are about the same event. Sometimes the sentences have odd punctuation and do not flow smoothly. The site is also upgraded only once a day, so news may appear stale. But like Csikszentmihalyi, Kathleen McKeown-the computer science professor overseeing the project-doesn't expect computers to replace journalists.

"It provides a complementary tool to help humans cope with the exploding quantity of information on the Web in a timely fashion," she said. "Even with errors, it is useful in this way."

Media companies need to do more than hand their print products to the Web; they need to be more innovative, to find new and better ways to gather and deliver information than a machine could ever do.

"We need to think of ourselves as media people, not newspaper people," said Steve Rossi, president of Knight Ridder Newspapers.

Adds J.D. Lasica, senior editor of Online Journalism Review, "users want us, need us, depend on us. And we need to focus on improving the journalism that appears on news sites.

So take a seat ya ol' hunk a junk and let a man (or woman) do the job. Journalists all around the world--and their notepads and their microphones--are safe.

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