Robot reporters covering Olympics for the Washington Post
Fri 5 Aug 2016
Starting tomorrow, the Washington Post will be using an AI software program to write real-time news updates for the Rio Olympics. Heliograf will write and post Olympics news updates directly to the Washington Post website and to outside channels including Twitter without human intervention.
Heliograf will be able to access and post data-driven information like scores, run times, and medals earned by the athletes at the Olympics. It will create quick, accessible data reports, rather than spinning data into traditional news stories. That will be left to human reports who, relieved of the responsibility for writing and posting data, will have more time for journalistic pieces.
As Jeremy Gilbert, the Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Washington Post said, “We’re not trying to replace reporters, we’re trying to free them up.” Gilbert, along with Sam Han, Director of Big Data and Personalization and a team of three full time engineers, have put a great deal of time and effort into the development and deployment of Heliograf.
However, the Olympics is not the final stop for the Heliograf program. The Post has big plans for the new program, including using it to assist with coverage for the 2016 elections in November. The Washington Post’s coverage of the 2012 presidential elections was hours behind, as Post employees sifted through data, crunched numbers and posted updates on their own. Using Heliograf, Gilbert hopes that the 2016 election results can be shared in something closer to real time.
Further on, Heliograf could be used to analyze data to flag interesting trends for reporters to build upon. Currently, the Associated Press uses a similar AI program called ‘Wordsmith’, which applies artificial intelligence to data streams to create a ‘human-sounding’ narrative. Wordsmith’s open API generates a natural language summary of data from source material including Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets.
Heliograf is not Gilbert’s first foray into AI journalism. As a professor at Northwestern University, Gilbert taught a class in automatic content creation. The students in that class developed a tool that uses ‘data storytelling’ AI programs to write real estate listings and earnings report previews without requiring hands-on assistance from human writers.