We’ve reached an age where humans and technology are quite literally attached at the hip, but the level of resistance to technological advancement is still the same as when sawmills were introduced in the 1770s. Regardless of how many times the technologies in question become essential tools in both work and daily life, the same concerns are raised: Is this time different? Will this machine take my place?
Today’s technology in question is, in fact, different. Artificial intelligence has already become commonplace in manufacturing and data analysis, but we’re now seeing its first foray into content creation in the form of automated journalism. As with every introduction of A.I. into a new industry, robots taking the place of humans is still a primary concern. But due to the creative nature of the tasks it’s built to support, the media industry is vexed by a new concern specific to automated journalism: quality.
This combined with the recent emphasis on quantity in media coverage of automated video might leave anyone in fear of a robot-powered industry takeover. But automated journalism is not taking the place of journalists, and the quality of its output actually depends on the humans that may fear it most.
New Technology, Old News
Humans have worked alongside machines for years, and automation will be no different. Researchers at BMW found that robot-human teams were about 85 percent more productive than either alone. These types of collaborative machines, or “cobots", have been placed into most major car manufacturing plants to work hand-in-hand with their human coworkers - not as replacements, but as valuable tools. And the keyword here is tool, because automation (despite what its Latin root might imply) does not successfully function autonomously.
One of the most common questions I get after explaining what my company does is, “if the platform is automated, then what do the people using it do?” “Automated” does not mean that robots are pumping out thousands of videos a day with no human intervention. When has technology ever operated entirely on its own? Just as a machine lifts a heavy car door, video automation tools save hours of tedious fine-tuning. It’s still up to journalists to decide how to take advantage of the heavy lifting, and ultimately tell the story.
The Creativity Factor
When automation was first introduced into the automobile industry, workers were understandably concerned about losing their jobs - but the quality of the car was never questioned. Why is quality so much more of a concern for automated content? Creativity is defined as “the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work”. It’s also a defining factor of quality content. Concern over quality stems from the concern over a lack of creativity. But when used correctly - by creative, hard-working humans - automation technology will give humans the potential to create in ways they never have before.
I often think back to Pixar’s Luxo Jr., the first fully computer-animated film, and the first time automation was introduced into the creative landscape. It had a lasting impact not only on the future of film, but on animators, producers, and other creatives in the industry.
"Luxo Jr. sent shock waves through the entire industry – to all corners of computer and traditional animation. At that time, most traditional artists were afraid of the computer. They did not realize that the computer was merely a different tool in the artist's kit but instead perceived it as a type of automation that might endanger their jobs. Luckily, this attitude changed dramatically in the early '80s with the use of personal computers in the home. The release of Luxo Jr. ... reinforced this opinion turnaround within the professional community.”
– Edwin Catmull, Computer Animation: A Whole New World, 1998
It would be difficult to argue that Luxo Jr. is not a product of creativity, or that it wasn’t one of the highest quality short films of its time. Automation lead to many changes in the film industry, but a decline in quality was not one of them.
The same is true for automated video. Friends and family often send me links to short-form news videos, assuming they were created using my company’s automation platform. While sometimes that is the case, most of these videos are still being created by publishers’ in-house video teams. When it comes to quality, audiences can’t tell the difference if a video was made with automation tools or not. I take their mistake as a compliment, but it’s really a compliment to the journalists, editors, and video producers proving that creativity can thrive with automation.
To deny that these new tools will cause industry upheaval would be naive - it’s already happening, it’s happened before, and it will continue to happen as long as humans find new and better ways to exist. But as long as humans exist, it’s safe to say that jobs will too. Instead of blaming automation technologies on the inevitable industry shift, members of the media industry should adopt Rebecca J. Rosen's short-term vs. long-term line of thinking.
In the short term, Rosen warns, “machines do replace humans. In fact, replacing humans is often entirely the point”. But just as woodworkers did with sawmills and animators with computers, journalists will learn to work hand-in-hand with automation tools. In the long term, the product of their work and work life in general will be of higher quality than before these tools came into play.
There are aspects of any job that robots can perform more precisely than humans. For the sake of human productivity and profitability, these aspects should by all means be automated. But regardless of how advanced technologies are and will become in the future, human emotion, empathy, and creativity will always remain at the core of journalism.