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Bye humans! The Washington Post is using a robot to report on the Rio Olympics

The Olympics is all about humankind’s ability to triumph over its naturally-imposed limitations and the world around it. So why, then, has the highly-respected Washington Post announced that it is handing much of the reportage of individual events over to Heliograf, its robot reporter?

Rather than sitting in the press box, notebook in hand, Heliograf is an algorithm that takes data from and transforms it into short multi-sentence posts, which then go directly to the Post’s live blog, Twitter account — and even other new-new media news sources like Facebook Messenger and audio updates on the Amazon Echo.

“In previous Olympics, especially London 2012, we had editors, reporters and producers who were watching the Olympics twelve hours a day and writing down results so that we could feed them into a running live blog about how events ended,” Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives at The Washington Post told Digital Trends. “There are about 330 medal events during the Olympics and, while there wasn’t much that wasn’t data-driven and formulaic, it took a ton of staff time.”

Using algorithmic reporting tools the Post had developed for the U.S. elections, the paper’s sports team spoke with Gilbert about using the technology to make sure the Olympics coverage was not only fast and on-point, but also didn’t rack up countless hours of human journalists’ time.

“It’s meant to complement the original reporting that we’re doing,” Gilbert said. “We’ve got almost a dozen people in Rio who are reporting [on the Olympics], and more than a dozen who are working in the newsroom here in D.C. All of them are trying to tell stories that only a human can tell.”

And as for the future? Does Gilbert agree with algorithmic storytelling startup Narrative Science Chief Scientist Kristian Hammond that, while today’s journo-bots may be simple, we’re only 20 years from a machine winning the Pulitzer?

“That line is already more blurred than we might like to think,” Gilbert said. “The Washington Post just won a Pulitzer for national reporting for creating a database of police shootings. Rather than a single linear story it was a collection of reporting over an entire year, which can be searched in any order by any reader. The transition I believe will be a fairly gradual one. I don’t know if there’ll be a day when we say, ‘This is an automated story that won a Pulitzer,’ but I do believe we’ll see more and more stories that are customized so that an automated agent helps to [personalize] the story for you, based on your experience with the subject, your location, even your age or reading level … We’re already doing some of those things at the Post, and we’re far from alone in that.”

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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