Skip to main content

A robot named Heliograf got hundreds of stories published last year

washington post paper heliograf
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Robots are taking our jobs, no doubt about it. Just in the past year we’ve seen barista robots, fast-food robots, pizza delivery robots, and even a robot conducting a symphony orchestra. But robots can’t replace journalists, right? The dogged reporters, members of the vaunted Fourth Estate, the men and women who bring us the news stories we read every day?

Think again. It’s happening, and odds are that you’ve been reading stories created by artificial intelligence in local and world news already.

A year ago, the Washington Post introduced Heliograf, an in-house program that automatically generates short reports for their live blog. It was first used during the Rio Olympics to provide information such as the results of medal events for services like Alexa. At that time Sam Han, engineering director of data science, said, “The next challenge is to broaden the subjects covered, deepen the kind of analysis possible and identify potential stories for our newsroom.”

It looks like that day has arrived. Over the past year, the Post has published 850 stories from Heliograf, expanding its reach to include reporting on subject like congressional races and high-school football games.

Other outlets like USA Today and the Associated Press have also begun to rely on automated software to create content for readers. Executives are quick to point out that the AI is not meant to replace reporters, but instead allow them extra time to develop and relate more important and relevant stories. “Heliograf will free up Post reporters and editors to add analysis, color from the scene and real insight to stories in ways only they can,” said Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives at the Post.

Not to mention the fact that machines don’t make typos and provide more accurate reporting. As Francesco Marconi, AP’s strategy manager put it, “In the case of automated financial news coverage by AP, the error rate in the copy decreased even as the volume of the output increased more than tenfold.”

A few years ago, the site Deadspin speculated that a robot had written a story about a college baseball game, citing the fact that they had “buried the lede” by not mentioning the pitcher had thrown a perfect game until the end of the story. A company called Natural Science rose to the challenge and, using only the box score, produced a better recap of the game than the human reporter had.

What this means for the future of reporting is an open question. Many of today’s biggest names in journalism got their start covering local news or high school sports. In the end, it all comes down to ad revenue. Although the Post can appraise the clicks and pageviews Heliograf generates, evaluating how much it impacts the bottom line is a more difficult task. In any event, it seems like reporters and robots will be working side-by-side for the foreseeable future.

Editors' Recommendations

Mark Austin
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Mark’s first encounter with high-tech was a TRS-80. He spent 20 years working for Nintendo and Xbox as a writer and…
The 18 best VPN services for 2024, reviewed by experts
best VPN services

These days more and more of our daily lives and everyday tasks are conducted online. Which means that it only becomes increasingly imperative that you prioritize ensuring that your financial and personal information is protected from cybercriminals. Protecting yourself from identity theft or even hackers can seem daunting, but it doesn't have to be. Take it one step at a time.

And your first step can be something as simple as using a virtual private network (VPN). The good news is that a reliable VPN is one of the easiest, cheapest, and most effective ways to safeguard your online activities from unwanted network intruders.

Read more
What are mouse jigglers, and can they keep statuses active?
Undetectable Mouse Mover at a computer.

It makes sense that mouse jigglers have gained prominence alongside the recent rise in jobs becoming remote positions. If more workers are working from home and away from employers' direct supervision, employers are going to try to find new ways to supervise their remote employees. And those employees are going to push back against being monitored by their employers. Which is how you end up with products like mouse jigglers becoming popular.

This odd little tech solution is being used to thwart some types of micromanagement and help employees manage time on their own terms, among other solutions. But do mouse jigglers work? Are jigglers allowed in the workplace? Here’s everything you should know.
What are mouse jigglers?

Read more
How your boss can spy on you with Slack, Zoom, and Teams
Good Morning GIF in Slack on a laptop.

Virtual workspace tools like Slack and Teams can be incredibly handy, both for those working in the office who need to send a quick message or arrange a meeting, and especially for those working remotely who need to stay in contact with their co-workers. With the rise of remote work, more and more office workers are spending a significant chunk of their day on these tools. However, if you use these then you should be aware that what you do in these systems isn't private -- most likely it can be seen by your boss. Even private conversations may not be as private as you think.

Apps like Slack, Teams, and other common business collaboration platforms are structured via admin permissions. In other words, with the right permissions, your boss can have a large amount of control over the platform and what’s happening on it. And if a manager goes to IT -- well, they can ask to see just about anything that happens on the app.

Read more