Computerised news means the next John Humphrys could be a robot

Today presenter Justin Webb investigates how computers are generating our news and invading our Facebook streams

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Picture the scene: I’m sitting in the Today studio next to John Humphrys, who has just begun an interview about rural buses.

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A pleasant-sounding man is complaining that he can’t get one home from the pub and John has seized on this thought: “You spend a lot of time in the pub, then?!”

To the casual listener nothing untoward has happened. But I’m thinking this is unusual levity at an early hour and once John and I have a chance to talk he confesses: “I’ve been recording Celebrity Mastermind interviews and we have to get them to say something funny and I think I was trying to do the same with that chap…”

Ah, we are only human. Even John, whose focus and tenaciousness are justly the stuff of legend, can veer off-piste now and then. That, of course, is why live radio broadcasting still has such a place in people’s lives. Anything can happen. (Even at ten past seven on a drizzly Saturday morning.) And that is why no machine, no artificial intelligence can be better than the real beating heart of a live broadcaster.

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Because, like it or not, the world of news is changing and the ability of machines to take over is being researched and discussed as never before.

Tuesday was a great day for W Roberts, as the junior pitcher threw a perfect game to carry Virginia to a 2-0 victory over George Washington at Davenport Field.

That was a report last year (reproduced by the website Copyblogger) of a kind that is now commonplace on some web platforms. It was entirely written by a machine, based on inputs of the scores and “knowledge” of the way sport is covered. The Associated Press use the same type of computer inputs to “write” financial stories where data is turned into prose.

When I began in journalism the people who decided what was important were elderly white dipsomaniacs who had left school at 14 and commuted into London from saloon bars in the Home Counties.

They knew what was what. Middle East at the top, motorway accident in the middle: skateboarding duck to finish. And home on the 6.17.

Things are different now, of course. The very idea of a running order being chosen for us by some grizzled “senior editor” clashes with the tone of the times.

Why should he (or nowadays, she) get to tell me what matters? How does he or she know? And into this new world of journalistic anarchy has stumbled the most ubiquitous of all the social media platforms, Facebook.

In case you don’t do Facebook, it’s worth pausing to consider the power of the site. According to the very reliable independent think tank Pew Research, nearly half of all Americans get their news from Facebook. Just two in ten look at print newspapers.

As you may have heard, these folks have just had a presidential election. For Facebook this is wonderful (they earn advertising revenue) and for users of Facebook, very convenient. But when Facebook news feeds contain stories saying that the Pope has endorsed Donald Trump, or that Hillary Clinton is to be pardoned for her crimes by Barack Obama, and we know that both “stories” are false, should we be alarmed?

Yes, newspapers (and broadcasters) also get things wrong, but think of this: according to Buzzfeed (another website) an entire cottage industry of web users in Macedonia spent the US election generating fake news stories related to Trump vs Clinton in order to inject them into Facebook’s Newsfeed as a way to drive views and generate ad revenue from US eyeballs. This feels big, and dangerous.

It’s tempting to suggest that computers are the problem and humans are the answer. But the truth is that we cannot avoid computerised news. Nor do we need those senior editors back, who were just as bad in their own way.

But perhaps we do need to take control. Man versus machine was yesterday’s story: the challenge now is to get the two working together.

The algorithm for John Humphrys’s mind is being worked on even as I write. It might well iron out the Mastermind/pub errors but it must keep the humanity. Without that, we are sunk.

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Justin Webb presents Today on Radio 4