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17 March 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:45am

Journalists, here’s how robots are going to steal your job

There was an earthquake in LA, and the journalist that scooped everyone else on the story was an algorithm.

By Ian Steadman

Central Los Angeles was hit by a 4.4 magnitude earthquake today at 06:25 local time, with a 2.7 magnitude aftershock being felt at 07:23am. The Los Angeles Times’ report went live at 07:53, with a peculiar final sentence (emphasis mine):

In the last 10 days, there has been one earthquake of magnitude 3.0 or greater centered nearby.

This information comes from the USGS Earthquake Notification Service and this post was created by an algorithm written by the author.

Behold, journalists – this is our future.

The author in question is Ken Schwencke, a journalist/programmer for the paper, and once you know it’s an algorithm you can kind of see how it works. The intro details the info that the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program puts out on its wire – you can see it here – with attention paid to earthquakes that are relevant to Los Angeles. Then it says how far the epicentre is from important districts, like Beverly Hills, before ending with a line putting the earthquake into context by listing how many others there have been over the last 10 days.

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So far, so good. And it saved Ken some time this morning:

This is the kind of thing Bill Gates was talking about last week, when he said automation was going to increase unemployment because it was cheaper than keeping people on the payroll. Anything that takes some predetermined steps to complete – be it putting a car together or constructing a piece of news to go out on a wire that conforms to a house style – will be under threat from robots. (I covered the history of this field in December – tl;dr: it’s come a long way in a few years, but we’ve got a few more years to go before it’s mainstream.) Maybe, just as with physical objects, there will be an emergent fetishisation of “artisan” stuff (read: columnists, opinion, literary non-fiction, investigations, etc.).

That said, the Guardian apparently tried to write a bot that could generate stories about quinoa, and that didn’t go too well. So maybe don’t lose any sleep just yet.