A Robot Reporter?

EureqaScreenShotRadiolab and Wired magazine each ran a story recently about a computer program they called a “robot scientist”. Its actual name is Eureqa. The Radio Lab story gave a compelling portrait of Eureqa’s capabilities. Just by looking at how a double pendulum moves Eureqa was able to deduce Newton’s famous law of motion “F=ma“. Even more amazingly, when Eureqa was told to watch biological cells eat, breathe, and grow it was able to deduce the underlying mechanics of that too. Eureqa was able to determine an equation that remained constant throughout the cellular processes and provided the scientists with this equation. Not only did this equation explain the data the biologists gave to Eureqa, but it was also able to predict some new behaviors that Eureqa had never before seen. A stellar accomplishment. Unfortunately Eureqa’s equation was just a string of symbols to the biologists. They had no idea how that equation related to any real-world quantities inside the cell. They got an answer, but couldn’t understand it.

Amazing as Eureqa is, its application may go far beyond science. It may even extend into the realm of news reporting. The first news story to fall to a Eureqa reporter might be climate change. Imagine feeding all the data we have about the Earth’s climate over the past 600,000 years into Eureqa. It could very well create an equation that relates all those variables into a planetary temperature model. All the issues skeptics complain about: sunspots, methane concentrations, increased albedo from deforestation, decreased albedo from polar ice melting, urban heat islands, etc, could be analyzed by Eureqa. Being a computer program we’d expect it would analyze the data without any bias or prejudice. And like the biology example above, it will produce an answer, perhaps one we won’t understand, but one that we can still use for predictive capabilities. We could feed it data indicating how we’d like to change our behavior to mitigate or even reverse global warming* and Eureqa would tell us if our hypothetical new behavior would help or not.

In the old days of news reporting some reporters were valued for their honesty and ethical integrity. If such a reporter said something was true the public would largely believe it. No reporter today understands climate change, they are all reporting what the scientists say and some are relying on old investigative reporting techniques to dig up dirt that appears significant but is essentially meaningless**. In other words instead of fact checking they’re merely questioning the motivation of the scientists and not digging into the science. However, if a result came from Eureqa it would be impossible to question its motives. The only thing to question would be the science.

Climate change with the data collected on that topic may be a field that’s within Eureqa’s grasp to analyze. However, future versions of Eureqa or programs like it may be able to answer other types of questions:

  • How do taxes affect economic growth?
  • Do generous social welfare programs decrease national productivity?
  • Do gun control laws reduce gun deaths?
  • If we legalized certain drugs how many more drug addicts would we have?

These questions may not seem like they easily lend themselves to numerical analysis, but we are a nation of fifty states, a world of many nations and we’ve been collecting data for a long time. Across our nation, across the globe and for the last several decades we have taken many different stances on these issues with many different results. A program like Eureqa one day may very well be able to analyze this information and determine the ideal tax rate for a country or what drugs can be safely decriminalized, or what level of social welfare minimizes the number of the poor while maximizing productivity.

The benefit of having a computer program report these results is that it’s immune to the motivational inquisition that passes for investigative journalism these days. You can’t question a computer’s motivation, but you can question the underlying data and the assumptions that go into its analysis. Somewhere along the line we’ve lost the ability to trust someone who doesn’t share our world view. Skepticism has devolved into merely ascertaining whether someone shares our world view and if not we stop listening. When computers are able to give answers to meaningful questions ascertaining whether the computer shares our world view will be a meaningless exercise. We’ll have to resort to verifying its conclusions the old fashioned way, questioning the data or verifying the results on a small scale. That’s the sort of reporting we’re aiming for here at News With Numbers. I’ve downloaded my copy of Eureqa, have you got yours?

* Assuming Eureqa agrees global warming is an issue.
**I’m thinking of climate-gate here.

17 comments for “A Robot Reporter?

  1. April 7, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    The idea of a “robot reporter” is technologically superb. Without a doubt it can save a lot of effort and time.

  2. April 7, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    Very interesting concept. It makes sense that artificial intelligence would be able to compute information more efficiently than a human, but I would still trust a smiling familiar face each evening at 6pm who is prone to some goofy remarks. Perhaps the robot can provide the copy, but a human can still read the teleprompter.

  3. April 10, 2011 at 1:28 am

    It is definitely be very useful to have this robot that can calculate things such as which taxes affect economic growth (in fact, I’m a bit surprised that there hasn’t been one already!).

    I do believe that ultimately, a lot of the things are all a matter of statistics. And if a machine can efficiently do a numerical analysis of everything that happens to us, then that would be a great insight into the lives we lead.

  4. April 10, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    This is what you call hitech, robot reporter does not only save a lot of effort and time, it gives a very precise data that lessens your headaches.

    Greg of Brisbane
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  5. Mag
    April 11, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    “determine the ideal tax rate for a country or what drugs can be safely decriminalized” interesting concept , could be very useful especially in ireland.

    Mag from ireland
    My site: Toddler Hitting

  6. April 11, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    A robot reporter would leave out emotions and feelings that I’m sure readers would be looking for in an article. It would give the scientific facts but not feeling.

  7. Frank
    April 12, 2011 at 12:35 am

    I think the wonderful thing about a program which “one day may very well be able to analyze this information and determine the ideal tax rate for a country or what drugs can be safely decriminalized, or what level of social welfare minimizes the number of the poor while maximizing productivity.” would be that it would be making suggestions based on evidence rather than what the political ideology of the day was forcing politicians to do. Too often in the west we find that policy is driven by political causes rather than what is actually best for the country.

    diy blogger at Hitachi NT65MA2

  8. April 12, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    Amazing! I’m astounded by the fact that it was able to deduce things about cellular processes. They should do a TED talk on this!

    Chad | Registry Cleaner Blog

  9. April 13, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    I celebrate this news with a grain of salt. The artificial intelligence makes me a little nervous. I don’t want Eureqa to tell me the probability that I will survive my marriage or if I should bother making art, for example.

  10. Jim
    April 14, 2011 at 7:44 am

    Yes a Robot reporter with new advanced investigative reporting techniques sounds very cool and just how far could this go what about a robot detective cold and calculating. Computers and artificial intelligence is moving so fast right now aany of this is possible,
    Thanks for a great article, Jim

  11. April 14, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    It sounds like this robot reporter would be good at interpreting numbers, but I’ll really be excited/nervous when the next model starts to come up with actual ideas for solving problems like gun violence and drug addiction.

  12. April 15, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    @Chandler boot camp

    I agree about the lack of emotions. But why should the robot actually deliver the results? Hopefully it would just determine the results, and a human would actually relate what the robot has uncovered. That is, until the robot is more human-like, which is probably right around the corner.

  13. April 28, 2011 at 2:27 am

    I hope the reporter robot would have the same human touch that a human reporter would have. I agree that lack of emotions may not be effective for a reporter robot, but I think human should still play a part with the reports.

    Jen Hopkins
    My last blog post: Alfani Shoes for men

  14. numbersguy
    April 30, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    My original intent for a robot reporter was more of a “partner” than something to completely replace the reporter. The phrase “Does Not Compute” might apply to human stories that a true robot reporter wouldn’t understand and think to write.

    But what I was shooting for was to help the human reporter avoid “Does Not Compute” because the question was a stupid one. Or more positively, ask MORE questions because the human reporter with a robot side-kick could get unbiased answers to questions.

  15. May 6, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    Wow, a robot that is as intelligent as Newton? Or maybe I should say, Newton was as intelligent as a robot?

    I’ll be excited when a robot creates something that is completely new, instead of crunching numbers.

  16. April 3, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    Great post, thanks for sharing. đŸ™‚

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