Replaced by the Robot

I was reading about the rapid disappearance of journalism jobs across the land (“another community newspaper closes” etc.) and began wondering whether it was us armchair philosophers, DIY writers, and opinionated bloggers who were driving journeymen journalists out of their jobs. Then I read about computer programmes that write political speeches, and others that write novels based on certain inputs, and I didn’t forget Google that serves up every fact we need, and I realized that the machine, or the robot, would soon replace all writers.

I recently observed a 30-something talking to her best friend, Siri, Apple’s automated assistant, who would serve up everything this human asked for, in the most polite manner—well, almost everything. During that short interval of observation, Siri provided answers to several general knowledge questions, served up the latest updates on current political issues, read poetry, clarified literature, but when mischievously asked, “Siri, do you ever have sex?”, answered demurely, “Now, you know I don’t like to talk about those matters,”— a truly prudish North American response from a companion who is always available and never loses her temper. Jeeves would have a hard time competing with this one!

When I was in the computer business, not so long ago, every time we encountered a process problem caused by human error, we automated it. I didn’t realize at the time that we were sowing the seeds to throw thousands out of work. On the other hand, our bosses loved it, for the cost-benefit equation was totally skewed in favour of the business owner. First, we automated data gathering and analysis, then we automated customer service, then we automated accounting, then we automated transaction processing, and we began throwing out sales reps, check-out counter reps, call centre reps, help desk reps, and accounting clerks by the truckload. What I didn’t stop to add into my cost-benefit model was that we were not reaping a net benefit but transferring a cost somewhere else. Those unemployed workers were now going to be someone else’s responsibility, someone else’s cost, and ultimately our cost, be it in higher taxes or higher employment insurance deductions. No one was also taking into account the personal costs to the individual: the crushing depersonalization caused by job loss, and the nervous breakdowns and marriage breakdowns that spring onto centre stage during periods of unemployment.

Automation cannot be reversed. And with Artificial Intelligence going mainstream, the robots are making deeper incursions into human activity and are moving up the hierarchy of human organizations replacing project managers, scientists, lawyers, doctors and other professionals who rely on codified knowledge for their expertise. And if the two species ever get into a showdown, it may boil down to a “battle for the switch” between them and us that could either, (a) render the robots inactive, or (b) kill off the humans with some noxious gas that robots are immune to, that would decide who rules whom in the years ahead. We cannot trust corporations or governments to think that far into the future and avert a confrontation either, for the former only think one financial quarter at a time and the latter think as far as only one political term in office.

Someone proposed that the answer should be to provide every human on the planet a living wage whether they are working or not, to compensate for the robots taking over human jobs; this solution is predicated on the premise that ultimately all humans will be displaced by machines. This might be problematic, for no one has yet solved the divide of “us vs. them,” that is likely to ensue between those who choose not to work and those who do, and unless a premium is paid to the latter, the solution may flounder. And one wonders what would happen to our economy which was built on the principle of “competition?” Some Japanese companies are trying the “phased-in” approach and are assisting their human employees to automate their jobs, and, if successful, be paid early retirement. I don’t know where the answer lies but we need to give this man-made problem, just like climate change, some serious thought, with a view towards the long term.

In the meantime, just like Gary Kasparov was finally outdone by Big Blue, I wonder when my job as a writer would be better served up by a robot writing under my name, churning out articles, stories and novels at a faster and better clip than I have ever been able to do? Now, if this alter-ego is able to make more money at this gig than I was ever able to do, then I wish “him” luck, while I retire from this profession and focus on my golf game. And let’s hope like heck that golf is never robotized!

Citizen Journalism vs. Traditional Journalism – which should we trust?

I have been following this ongoing debate as to whether free journalistic content on the Internet and real•time amateur photos uploaded from the world’s flashpoints will outpace traditional journalism. No, say the traditionalists: our investigative journalists go deep and cover many viewpoints. Wrong, say the citizen journalists: our information is current and we have no profit motive behind it. We are impartial, counter the traditionalists. You are paid by advertisers, so you have to be politically correct, say the rebels. Our personnel risk their lives in the world’s hotspots and many of us have died in the line of duty, say the traditionalists. We are in the line of fire, says a rebel, poking his head out of a bombed•out building to snap the latest atrocity on his iPhone and upload it for the world’s viewing pleasure (or horror).

I am not sure who is right. Certainly, Internet 2.0 has provided for an instantaneous dialogue between writers and readers and we are not satisfied any longer with just the bare presentation of facts, arguments, propaganda and lies. And the very static “letters to the editor,” – that is, the traditionalists’ old fashioned attempt to stimulate audience participation – pales under the online world’s “like” and “comment” buttons that accompany most e•journal pieces these days. “Going viral” happens faster on the Internet than in traditional media. The fact that most traditionalists have embraced the Internet to issue e•versions of their paper editions means that they don’t want to be left behind. To make matters worse for the old guard, the recent telephone bugging scandals of the traditionalists have not endeared them to readers. Traditional content providers are out to sell advertizing – we all know that – so mass appeal is where their interests lie and the citizen journalists are left to cover the niches. Therefore, one could argue, how comprehensive is traditional journalism if it is shaped by a powerful sponsor with vested interests?

Not getting paid for citizen journalism, while this indicates purity of intention, could also include poorly written pieces and content emanating from those with undisguised axes to grind. But we have also heard of “right wing” or “left wing” newspapers in the traditional space. On the other hand, traditionalists are lifers and insist that their journalists are immersed in their subject, and provide accuracy, structure, responsibility and voice, while citizen journalists are scattered in their presentation and may quickly get bored and move onto other pursuits once they have had their fill of saving the world or exposing its underbelly.

I too have dabbled in citizen journalism and like the fact that I do not have to pay obeisance to an uncaring editor who may edit, alter, or reject my submission because it is not to his liking or displeases his sponsors. It has allowed me to view the world and comment on its idiosyncrasies while maintaining a paid career elsewhere. I do not entertain ads on my website or blog for the privilege of being free of interference. I have thus managed to escape the moniker of “jaded journalist” or “corporate lackey.”

I am not sure which side is better for both have pros and cons. I am grateful that Internet 2.0 has allowed many of us who care, to share our views with the world without relying on the narrow portal of traditional journalism to showcase us. It has also given the reader a wider spectrum of opinion to consider and a bigger headache in sorting out the wheat from the chaff.