Sunday 4 December 2016

Aidan O'Hara: No humans required - welcome to the brave new world of the robot column

Published 24/10/2016 | 02:30

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola Photo: Reuters / Phil Noble
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola Photo: Reuters / Phil Noble

With the journalism industry constantly looking for ways to save money, today we introduce the concept of the Robo-Column, an automated thought process not written by humans which, with a few pre-ordained tweaks, can spit out a few hundred words on any given subject.

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There are many who would argue that such columns have been in operation for decades, with humans taking the role of the robot, however, last week's assertion from the editor-in-chief of the Press Association (PA) has accelerated the process.

"It will be more a case of offering an extra level when it comes to short market reports, election results and football reporting," Pete Clifton told the Society of Editors conference.

He revealed that PA would be examining the workings of a Danish news agency which has developed its own automated reporting structure and insisted such technology would support journalists rather than replace them.

Clifton said that the Danish company's automated market reports are "more accurate than when somebody was trying to write too many stories on their own".

He added: "Will it take over from proper journalists? Of course it won't. We won't have a robot going to a big fire or covering a crown court case."

Given the current state of the industry, "a big fire" is an appropriate example to use and, lest there be any confusion given the tone of the rest of this article, those quotes are for real.

With a gap in the market for analysis once the robots have finished with the nitty-gritty of a football match-report, the Robo-Column can produce hundreds of words which can incorporate some details from the match report, once a couple of settings have been made.

The three-setting structure is as follows:

1, J Red: A nice looking article but one which tells the reader nothing new.

2, G Nev: Extremely detailed and something which makes the reader sound knowledgeable, albeit rarely one which antagonises.

3, E Dun: The most extreme setting in which something outlandish is written and argued while making references to other sports. Setting Number 3 also has the unique element of being able to make the opposite argument in the not-too-distant future.

For tabloids, the Robo-Column will be the fool-proof, age-old template of a snappy intro, any aul rubbish in the middle and finishing with a joke.

For broadsheets, Robo-Column provides an extensive list of quotes from Nietzsche or lines from movies which only cool people have seen which can be used as an intro, this is then followed by the same any aul rubbish in the middle and finishes by wedging in something relating back to the boy Nietzsche.

Robo-Column can also be pre-programmed to be aware of seasonal difference meaning that, around the time of the Six Nations, it can produce hundreds of words on what football can learn from rugby.

Obviously, football can't learn anything from Gaelic Games in April but, by August or September, Robo-Column has the ability to adapt and compare the amateur hurlers playing in front of 80,000 people in Croke Park before teaching your children on a Monday, to the over-paid prima donnas poncing around in the Premier League.

Lest there be any fears about Robo-Column not being topical, this is where the second pre-programmed setting kicks in.

In last week's Champions League game between Barcelona and Manchester City for example, the pre-programmed templates would have written that a Barcelona victory means that Pep Guardiola isn't all he is cracked up to be, citing examples of players he has decided are not part of his plans in contrast to new signings he has made.

Just in case City had won, there would have been a few hundred words ready to outline why Lionel Messi is, perhaps, past his best and that Guardiola learned from past mistakes in how to counteract the threat of the club he used to manage.

A draw would have contained a mish-mash of both scenarios while, as part of the Robo-Column hardware, the losing team automatically should have picked a player that they left sitting on the bench while the winning team's manager got their selections spot on.

Fast-forwarding to the weekend's Premier League and Robo-Column would, on Friday, have prepared for an Arsenal victory which, despite making it eight wins in a row, would have told us nothing because you learn nothing against Middlesbrough.

In the event of a draw or defeat, however, the robot could explain what we have learned from this game against Middlesbrough is that it's the same old Arsenal with the same failings as the last few seasons.

Mesut Ozil's midweek dressing-room selfie after a hat-trick against Ludogorets would also form part of the pre-programmed narrative as to why Arsenal won't win the Premier League and this, combined with an 'E Dun' template, would explain why Arsene Wenger deserves to be sacked.

Yesterday, Robo-Column was already primed to write "Five Things Guardiola Must Do To Arrest City's Slide" (with every word given a capital letter for some reason) for the scenario of them dropping points while victory would foster an article about why defender John Stones doesn't need to defend.

If Chelsea's "Super Sunday" with Manchester United had proved as boring as United's game against Liverpool, Robo-Column can blissfully ignore the fact that Sky paid billions for the Premier League rights and complain about it being over-hyped.

On the pitch, any positive result for United would form the basis for a few hundred words on another Mourinho masterclass but defeat could be used to point out that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is over the hill and Paul Pogba doesn't perform in big games.

It'll save money with barely any human involvement, unless there's a "big fire" at the stadium, but the biggest beauty of Robo-Column, however, is once it reaches the word-count it just stops.

Irish Independent

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