It has become fashionable lately to talk about how artificial intelligence (or “AI” for the technologically hip among us) is threatening to overtake humans in many key categories. There has been a glut of studies, reports, news stories, and commentaries (including one in on our website just this week) with headlines like this: “Will AI mean the end of jobs?” or “Robots are a greater threat to jobs than globalization.”
Already, computers and robots of various sorts have reduced or eliminated various jobs that were common just a few years ago, from assembly line workers in factories to telephone operators to toll collectors. Up next, as robots become ever smarter and more capable, will come truck drivers, airline pilots, delivery drivers, and bus taxi and ridesharing drivers.
Already robots are replacing warehouse stock clerks, waiters, and cooks. Computers can even dispense basic legal and medical advice, so it is probably only a matter of time before they begin performing more complex tasks even in those highly specialized occupations.
Over the winter, the radio show “Marketplace” did a multi-week series called “Robot-proof jobs,” travelling across the country visiting professionals of all sorts to see how much each field was vulnerable to some form of automation. Among the least vulnerable, they concluded, were athletes, clergy members, models, and historians. Among the most vulnerable, even in imminent danger of extinction, were aircraft cargo handlers, plaster and stucco workers, logging equipment operators, and movie projectionists.
A recent survey of AI experts found that most expect that computers will be smart enough to write a passable high-school-level essay within 10 years and a best-selling novel within 30 years. They expect AI to be able to beat even the best humans at poker within about five years, to be able to fold laundry within about seven years, and accurately assemble even the most complex Lego kits within eight or nine years.
All this got me wondering about my own profession, journalism. I’d like to think that by the time a computer is able to be a newspaper editor, it will be too smart to want the job. But really, the change is already happening.
Automation has already transformed my business almost beyond recognition in the last 40 years. Computers and technology have wiped out entire categories of jobs – typesetters, linotype operators, copyboys, and composers. Others have had their jobs changed drastically – what used to take photographers hours to do in a darkened lab can be done in minutes with a digital camera and some simple software. Likewise page designers, copy editors, and sales staff can do their jobs in a fraction of the old time thanks to computers.
There’s even been a move on that most human of activities – writing. Already there are programs that can write simple news items, though they are just the most routine, formulaic kinds of stories: calendar items, financial reports, and sports game summaries.
But that bit in the AI expert survey about writing a high school essay caught my eye. After all, most news stories are deliberately written at a fairly basic reading level, so if a computer can write a high school essay, there is no reason why it can’t learn to write a routine news story.
I am inclined, however, to put the category “journalist” somewhere along side of clergy and historians in the least vulnerable list. Writing is only part of our job, perhaps even a secondary part. The main job of a journalist is to build relationships. We need to meet people, listen to them and understand them. We need to determine their motivations and desires, forge connections that allow us to figure out what’s going on.
Most of all, we need to be able to pick up a notebook, camera, or microphone and convince people to tell us their stories. That’s hard enough to do on a human-to-human level, and I’d like to think it will be a very long time before it’s a task suited to robots.