AI reporters are here. What that means for the future of work

Aspiring news reporters should probably get a liberal arts degree.
Maybe robot reporters would be better? (Pixabay)

In an article for The New York Times earlier this month, journalist Jaclyn Peiser wrote about how several major news outlets are now publishing articles scribed not by flesh-and-blood reporters, but by automated computers. 

With more and more media workers losing their jobs — about 1,000 media jobs in the U.S. have been lost since the beginning of this year — many journalists may be feeling threatened by what Peiser called "robot reporters."

But according to tech expert Jerry Kaplan, the rise of artificial intelligence in newsrooms is just another example of workplace automation that many other industries have already been facing — and things aren't as dire as you might think.

"We're just talking about the same kinds of computer automation that we've seen in the consumer domain in lots of areas over the past 20 years or so," Kaplan told Spark host Nora Young. 

The jobs that are going to get automated have certain characteristics, and those are that they tend to be repetitive.- Jerry Kaplan

Kaplan, author of Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, spoke with Young about why A.I. in the workplace isn't such a bad thing, and why future workers should be opting for liberal arts degrees. Here is part of their conversation

[Automation] came up when we talked last time about your book. Can you expand on that a little bit?

Well, automation is really the kind of — to quote Karl Marx for you, that's something you don't get very often — it's the substitution of capital for labor. And we're really just talking about building machines that are capable of performing tasks — not jobs — tasks that previously required a human effort or attention. 

Jerry Kaplan

Now whether that's the automatic lawnmower or whether that's a program that scans data for anomalous events, like whether a sports record was 10 per cent higher than than the previous, that doesn't say anything about the human condition. It doesn't really speak to what it means to be a person. It's really just an extension of those same kinds of automation that we've seen since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

I know that in your book you talked about which kinds of jobs were most and least likely to be affected by A.I. and automation. So for someone who's listening to this who say is in high school now, what kind of suggestions would you have?

The jobs that are going to get automated have certain characteristics, and those are that they tend to be repetitive. They're very well defined. The tools you use to do them are understood. There's a specific goal you can measure progress toward that goal. Those are the kinds of activities that are going to get automated. 

Now people can do those things, but it doesn't really use their their natural abilities, their breadth and their creativity. And so I don't think those things are going to be threatened anytime soon by this type of technology. 

Go out and get a broad liberal arts education.- Jerry Kaplan

Now if I was in high school and I was looking for what should I do in the way of a profession, my answer today be very simple: go out and get a broad liberal arts education. And the reason for that is those are exactly the kind of skills which will never be obsoleted. Your ability to learn a completely new field to apply things you learn in one field to another field. These are the areas that the future of computers and robots and artificial intelligence are not going to touch certainly not in our lifetime. 

You know we already have A.I.s that can compose music that can create visual art, that can assess risk. So do you think that down the road, we're on our way towards building A.I.s that can "think for themselves," in the sense of passing for having critical thinking skills or passing for having creativity?

Well you use the word "passing" and that's very important. The items that you're talking about, those are really magic shows. What it's showing is that you can write a computer program that can produce something that a person cannot easily distinguish from, say, the output of an artist or whatever it might be. 

But the program doesn't have any understanding of what it's doing and it doesn't have any breadth. It just does that one thing. So it's kind of like building a doll that's very lifelike and can wake up in the morning and say, "Hi, how are you?" You [think], "Wow, I thought that was a person." Well, that's what it knows how to do. 

This is not in any way related to the kind of general intelligence or general knowledge that people typically exhibit.- Jerry Kaplan

So I would I really wouldn't worry about this, and the types of technology that's under the hood with the A.I. systems that are being built to date are very, very narrow. They're typically focused each time on one specific task, and there is a programmer behind who has to carefully hand craft that system to understand that particular task, like recognizing the picture of a cat. 

Even though news outlets like the Washington Post are using A.I. systems to write some articles, human reporters will still need to create the story templates. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

And this is not in any way related to the kind of general intelligence or general knowledge that people typically exhibit, and their ability to knit together all of their knowledge and experience in order to address some kind of new challenge that they're going to face in the future. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click the listen button above to hear the full conversation.


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