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'My Boss Is A Robot' Project Automates Journalism

The My Boss is a Robot project seeks to use a computer algorithm to coordinate crowdsourced journalism. The project is the brainchild of Jim Giles, MacGregor Campbell and a Carnegie Mellon research team led by Nii Kittur, an assistant professor in human-computer interaction.

The subject will be a newly-released scientific paper and the story length will be roughly 500 words. We’re aiming for a standard-issue piece of science journalism, not a long-form essay or in-depth investigation.

A regular journalist would start by reading the paper. They might then call up the authors, and follow up that conversation by contacting other researchers who work on the same topic. The notes from those chats form the basis for the story.

That’s the process we’re trying to automate. To do so, we need to break it down into simple tasks, each of which is suitable for the workers on Mechanical Turk. One task might be: “use the references from the paper to identify researchers who could comment on the results”. Another: “read the abstract and identify the most interesting aspect of this paper”.

(When I say “we”, I mean Niki Kittur and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). They’re the ones doing the hard work).

We also need software to manage these jobs. For example, we might want to ask five workers to read the abstract of the paper and say what they find interesting about it. We’re basically asking the workers what the story should be about. Thanks to an interface built by the CMU team, the workers’ answers will be fed back to the software that controls the process, aka the robot boss. The robot boss might then combine the five answers and ask workers to vote on which they find the most interesting. When it’s done, the workers, overseen by the software, will have selected the angle that the story will take. (Mechanical Turk is fast. This might happen in minutes).

The rest of the process — writing, editing, fact-checking — will work in a similar way. So if it does actually work, the system will be totally automated. Meaning that we will feed a scientific paper into this human-powered machine and, a few days later, out will pop a piece of journalism.

Science fiction fans may recall Landru, the computer system that ran an entire planet, telling everyone what to do:


(Landru)

Fans of William Gibson recall Wintermute, the AI that was giving the orders in Neuromancer:

Case lowered the gun. `This is the matrix. You're Wintermute.'

`Yes. This is all coming to you courtesy of the simstim unit wired into your deck, of course. I'm glad I was able to cut you off before you'd managed to jack out.' Deane walked around the desk, straightened his chair, and sat down. `Sit, old son. We have a lot to talk about.'

Update 11-Nov-2023: As far as I know, the first use of the phrase "robot-boss" is by David C. Cooke from Women's World (1939); see robot-boss. End update.

From My Boss is a Robot via Technology Review blog.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 2/6/2011)

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