On Deadline in the Robotic Newsroom

          Google is funding a robot journalism project that will use artificial intelligence to write local news stories.

London Evening Standard

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“My IBM desk-top has a lead on next week’s school lunch menu.”

 

We were sitting in the newsroom, me, Zuse Z2 and Turing Univac III, shooting the breeze while we waited for anonymous sources to call us back.

“I got a report of a kitten up a tree over on Verndale and Brighton Ave,” snarled our crusty but loveable human editor Mike Gromlick, a mash-up of Clark Kent’s Perry White and Mary Tyler Moore’s Lou Grant, as he popped his head out his office door.  “Who wants it?”

We three looked at each other, and it was all we could do to keep ourselves from bursting out laughing.

“What was it Jack Cole said that got him fired,” Zuse asked rhetorically, referring to the local anchor who was sacked when he criticized a segment on chimney safety during the Christmas season.

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We’ll be back with more alleged news in a moment,” Turing said, laughing loudly.  Me and Zuse were a bit more restrained in our expressions of mirth because we don’t have Turing’s inherited wealth to sustain us if, like Cole, we’re suspended for insubordination.

“People can’t get enough of that stuff,” Gromlick said.  “I want 450 words for tomorrow’s bulldog edition.  I’ll send a photographer along, you’ll be on the front page.”

We three turned towards each other so that Gromlick couldn’t see, then used the time-honored tool for divvying up doggy cat stories among seasoned robotic reporters.

“Rock, paper, scissors–shoot!” Zuse said, and he was odd man out with a rock that Turing and I both covered with paper.

“Sorry old man,” Turing said.  “Remember to get the kitten’s name and age.”

“Ha ha, so funny I forgot to laugh,” Zuse said.  Like a lot of your old-line robot reporters, his sense of humor is stuck in the computer punch-card era.

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Miss Computer Punch Card of 1956

 

“Are you two gainfully employed?” Gromlick asked after Zuse had put on his fedora and scrambled out to the scene of the stranded kitten.

“I’m working on a think piece,” I said, hoping to duck any far-flung assignment that might tax my battery life.

“Don’t strain yourself,” Gromlick said as he riffled through some phone messages.  “I’ve got a City Council budget hearing tonight–jump ball.”

Neither of us jumped, and Turing rolled his eyes so hard you could hear his optic nerves grind.  “Chief–don’t you know that ‘budget’ is one of the top-two words guaranteed to send a reader flipping to the funnies to see what Marmaduke . . .”

“Don’t forget Ziggy,” I interjected.

“. . . is up to?”

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“What’s the other?”

“‘Procurement’ when not used in the sense of prostitution,” Turing said.

“. . . and that’s non-political prostitution we’re talking about,” I added.  “Not to put too fine a point on it.”

“Turing?” our joint secretary Melba called out.

“Yes?” my wealthier colleague replied.

“There’s an anonymous source for you on line 1.”

“Get his name and tell him I’ll call him back,” Turing said.  “Aren’t there any society galas you need covered?”

“We’ve got the Cirrhosis Foundation Annual Benefit Ball.”

“Is it open bar?” I asked.

“For the working press.”

“I’ll take that!” Turing said, jumping on the opportunity in the rapid-fire jinx-you-owe-me-a-closed-end-mutual-fund manner that he had used to accumulate wealth in his childhood.

“How come he gets all the upper-crust assignments?” I whined.

“Society reporters are born, not made,” Turing sniffed.  “You’d use the wrong fork and embarrass the paper.”

I was wondering what that left for me to cover.  I was regretting my decision to transfer out of the sports department.

“And you,” Gromlick said as he tossed a few of the possible leads into a wastebasket.

“Yes?”

“You want a slippery assignment?”

I hesitated, trying to calibrate my next move like a poker player sitting on a pair of treys, knowing I didn’t have a lot of leverage.  If I turned it down, I could end up spending the night at the city morgue, checking out murder victims, or worse.  If I appeared too eager, I might find myself covering corruption at City Hall, or a footbath at the municipal swimming pool.  I decided I couldn’t be squeamish and chance my career.

“Sure,” I said, but not with much enthusiasm.

“Great,” Gromlick said.  “Somebody just spilled 7,500 pounds of slime eels on the highway–get out there, NOW!”

 

 

 

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