Isn’t it about time your nightly news was delivered by an avatar?
No that's not already the case! But it could be in the future. Thanks to a
new project called
News At Seven. Chicago Public Radio’s Shawn Allee explains.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, let's move from fake reporters to computer-generated news anchors that report stories with the help of digital editors and producers. A computer scientist at Northwestern University is aiming to create a program that will do just that. And, what's more, he says his digital journalists will be uniquely capable of bringing us the news that we really, really want to hear. Chicago Public Radio's Shawn Allee explains. SHAWN ALLEE: If you went to bed early the evening of August 7, you closed your eyes on a bit of baseball history. The San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds hammered a record-breaking career home run. [CLIP]: [APPLAUSE AND CHEERING UP AND UNDER] DUANE KUIPER: The overshift is on, and Bacsik deals. And Bonds hits one high! Hits it deep! It is out of here! Seven-fifty-six! [APPLAUSE AND CHEERING] [END OF CLIP] SHAWN ALLEE: By morning, TV producers, editors and reporters picked through wire reports and footage to fashion coverage. But at Northwestern University, a computer did the same thing. Here's the computer avatar news anchor, Alyx Vance, presenting the story in front of shifting video footage. ALYX VANCE: For one spectacular moment, Barry Bonds and everybody cheering him could forget about the controversy surrounding his chase and appreciate the phenomenal feat -- 756. SHAWN ALLEE: Okay. It's not Walter Cronkite, but -- MAN: I'm happy to say right now we've got a bear on a bike. SHAWN ALLEE: Computer scientist Kristian Hammond created Alyx. KRISTIAN HAMMOND: And what's amazing [LAUGHING] is not that it rides the bike well but it rides the bike at all. SHAWN ALLEE: Sure, Hammond admits Alyx needs a voice coach, and the video is shaky user-generated stuff, but Hammond didn't create just a digital news anchor. He created a software package called News At Seven that produces and edits its newscasts, too.
With the Barry Bonds story, Hammond picked the topic. From there, News At Seven reworked text from the Web and snagged video from YouTube. Hammond needed help to get this far. KRISTIAN HAMMOND: We dealt with the problem of what do journalists do the way we deal with any problem, because we're a university, damn it. We went to another department. [LAUGHS] So we went [LAUGHS] over to Medill. We have an entire journalism school. SHAWN ALLEE: That is Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. Hammond sent his grad students to Medill lecturer Beth Bennett. She says when it came to the basics, News At Seven's avatar Alyx was green as a freshman. BETH BENNETT: Even minor things, like gesturing, it's amazing how many students get up on the anchor desk for the first time and they don't gesture. SHAWN ALLEE: Now, Alyx nods and moves her hands to give occasional emotional punch, and the program follows Bennett's advice to keep sentences short and simple. By all accounts, Bennett's journalism students were aghast. BETH BENNETT: I wasn't sure how to tell my students, hey, guys, I'm bringing in [LAUGHS] an engineering grad student who's going to create a virtual newscast and potentially take jobs away from you. SHAWN ALLEE: But Hammond says they shouldn't panic. KRISTIAN HAMMOND: Well, we might replace them at one task, but that means that they'll get to be doing something better. So the person who sits there and edits the AP wire that comes in so it could be put on the teleprompter, if we have a system that can do that for them, they can look at what's coming over the AP wire and they could start thinking about it. SHAWN ALLEE: In other words, Hammond wants computers to sweat the small stuff while reporters and producers find better content for hosts, be they human or avatar.
And, says, Hammond, News At Seven could fix another problem, one that's dogged broadcast news from the outset -- having to snag the biggest audience possible. KRISTIAN HAMMOND: Even in niche areas, it's like entertainment news. It has to be for everyone who cares about entertainment. And that is, it's broad. It's broadcast. It's for everybody. SHAWN ALLEE: Even nimble broadcasters can only tailor their news so much. Even when they solicit audience suggestions -- KRISTIAN HAMMOND: Then they have to translate that into one person writes them a letter and then they have to say, okay, everybody. We have to do the "everybody" version of this. We can do the "you" version of this. SHAWN ALLEE: So the latest version of his software tailors news, sports and weather to an individual's interests and location. And the final frontier is the hyper-personal -- computer-generated news from online social networks. KRISTIAN HAMMOND: If you tell the system here are my friends on MySpace and the system can track them, and when their pages change it can talk to you [LAUGHS] about that -- and so we really like the notion of, you know, today's going to be sunny and warm, the Cubs have once again choked, and, by the way, your friend Mary has just recommended a new band. Here's a clip from it. [LAUGHS] SHAWN ALLEE: Medill professors familiar with the software say it might have a place on news websites. But here's one worry. Will hyper-customization mean the computer mixes professionally-produced news and blogs and gossip from social networks? Journalism professor Beth Bennett wonders about credibility. BETH BENNETT: You know, if someone gives a journalist information that's incorrect or inaccurate, we have to make the call not to even put it out there for the listener or the viewer to make a decision about. And those decisions I think are best left to journalists. SHAWN ALLEE: Several Medill professors want to know how News At Seven settles on what to air. After all, who's making the moral decisions about what to report? KRISTIAN HAMMOND: The decisions about what it says will actually come from three sources -- people saying, here's what I want to hear, and us, sort of the system builders, making decisions as best we can about where we're going to get the news from and how we're going to manage it. And then there's something that’s called an emergent behavior, and that is the system itself will probably make decisions that we don't expect. SHAWN ALLEE: Emergent behavior we don't expect? Right now a major check on a journalistic mistake is that someone in a vast audience will catch it. For the foreseeable future, Alyx and her avatar colleagues are academic experiments. But if Hammond's software ever does deliver the "you" version of the news, you might be the only media watchdog in the room.
For On the Media, I'm Shawn Allee. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]