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Robot writes earthquake breaking news for Los Angeles Times

Published on Mar 19, 2014 8:38 PM

In the book The New Digital Age: Reshaping The Future Of People, Nations And Business, authors Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, both from Google, said, "“Can a robot be brave? Can it selflessly sacrifice?" Well, no - but it can write breaking news.

With "robo-journalism", a technology drawing on trusted sources like the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to generate articles, the Los Angeles (LA) Times became the first newspaper to have a story about the 4.4-magnitude earthquake that shook the LA area on Monday.

The LA Times has created an algorithm that automatically puts together a brief write-up whenever an earthquake occurs. LA Times journalist and programmer Ken Schwenck, also the earthquake algorithm creator, told Slate magazine he reckoned "we had it up within three minutes".

The earthquake bot is not alone at the LA Times. The paper has another one that cobbles together homicide reports in the city. And who decides which ones are worth a follow-up? Human editors.

Other news organisations have explored the use of artificial intelligence. According to The Guardian, uses such a platform "to generate automated news from live data sets and content harvested from previous articles".

There is the argument that the generated story will replace the journalist. But is that possible?

This is the article by the LA Times' bot:

A shallow magnitude 4.7 earthquake was reported Monday morning five miles from Westwood, California, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The temblor occurred at 6:25 a.m. Pacific time at a depth of 5.0 miles.

According to the USGS, the epicenter was six miles from Beverly Hills, California, seven miles from Universal City, California, seven miles from Santa Monica, California and 348 miles from Sacramento, California. In the past ten days, there have been no earthquakes magnitude 3.0 and greater centered nearby.

This information comes from the USGS Earthquake Notification Service and this post was created by an algorithm written by the author.

Concise with accurate details, yes. Award-winning, definitely no. But the algorithm's goal is not meant to write a compelling, analytical piece with insightful perspectives. As Mr Schwencke said in the Slate magazine interview, "It's to get the basic information. Everybody else can go out and find out: Was anybody hurt? Was anything damaged? What do the people at the USGS actually have to say?”

He added: ""It's supplemental. It saves people a lot of time, and for certain types of stories, it gets the information out there in usually about as good a way as anybody else would.

"The way I see it is, it doesn't eliminate anybody's job as much as it makes everybody's job more interesting."