A few adjectives

wed30aug2006—35w242d66%— 20h10m00s—0utc

Just good fun writing. On the singularity to boot. To be read with that eemadge from Moravec I always quote in such settings.

Perhaps the week’s biggest and scariest robot news, though — certainly for journalists — was the robot reporters story.

Thomson Financial has been using automatic computer programs to generate news stories for almost six months. The machines can spit out wire-ready copy based on financial reports a mere 0.3 seconds after receiving the data. Thomson management likes its reporter robots so much that it has decided to expand the fleet.

Flesh-and-blood journalists were quick to decry the move. “Those editors who can’t wait to install computers at the expense of journalists should beware,” warned Mark Tran in the Guardian article “Robots write the news.”

“Look at what happened in Space Odyssey, when HAL took over the spaceship. Or worse still, think of Terminator 3, when the Skynet network of computers unleashes nuclear war.”

Tran was joking. Well, half joking. But his joke was also a poignant plea. A robot may be able to turn a share report into three pithy paragraphs in less than a second, but it can’t go and watch movies about other robots and turn that into a warning for the world.

Because it can’t live, it can’t think. Or so we think. Tran’s conclusion isn’t very reassuring. “We endangered financial journalists could prolong our lives in the short term by slapping more adjectives into our copy,” he suggests, “but the writing does seem to be on the wall, as far as earnings reports go.” If all that stands between a writer’s job and redundancy is a few adjectives, well, that’s plain scary.

“Scary” — yes, nice adjective. It’s got human emotion, empathy, experience. Good, we’re still on the right side of the Turing Test; the side the robots can’t get to.

Or can they? I can hear the laments already, with 20/20 hindsight. First they came for the bomb disposal crews, and we said nothing. Then they were spot-welding and spray-painting on the auto plant assembly lines, and still we said nothing. Only now that they’ve come for the journalism jobs do the journalists scream. But it’s too late.

Mistrust and paranoia have set in. How do we know Mark Tran isn’t already a robot? “Tran” — does that even sound like a human name?

It’s a losing battle. These days, it seems, there are fewer and fewer jobs a robot couldn’t do. Even automatic translation, which some said only humans could do properly (because meaning requires context and context requires lived experience) is coming on by leaps and bounds, pulling jobs out from under the feet of the lower-level human translators.

Heh, that “first, then, now” schtick never grows old. Here’s another instance of it.

That last paragraph of the quote was included simply for Chepe & Andrea, the two wonderful translators-to-be in my life, to read and grok. It’s not that I don’t support such a lovely liberal-arts profession (I’ve surely considered it for myself in several occasions). I simply believe it’s going to be among the next professions to be submerged EE by AI, and seafaring success thereon will require a different skillset and attitude.

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