August 11, 2017

Much of what you’re about to read applies to the news in general, but it especially applies to news about technology.

On this topic the question to ask yourself is not is this important or is it just hype? – but rather, is it both?

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Hype about things that aren’t important only matters if you mire yourself in triviality. As for things that are important, but don’t get hyped, they will happen anyway – and someone, somewhere is almost certainly writing about them (if you look hard enough). However, when things are both hyped and important, the potential for serious misdirection is decidedly non-trivial.

A prime example is the field of artificial intelligence or AI. In a brilliant post on his Togelius blog, Julian Togelius has some friendly advice for tech journalists (and, presumably, those who consume tech journalism):

“there are a whole lot of very bad articles on AI (news articles and public interest articles) being published in newspapers and magazines. Some of them are utter nonsense, bordering on misinformation, some of them capture the gist of what goes on but are riddled with misunderstandings.”

He starts with a few home truths and keeps them coming:

“First off, I understand. You’re writing about an extremely fast-moving field full of jargon and enthusiastic people with grand visions. Given all this excitement, there must be plenty to write about, but you don’t know much (or even anything) about the field. You probably know as little about AI as I know about, say, tannery. But where tannery evolves only very slowly and involves very concrete materials and mechanics, AI moves at breakneck speed… There’s a feeling that you need to write about the latest developments NOW before they are superseded… And of course you want to write something readable, and clickable, and you don’t have much time. It can’t be easy.”

Ouch! That’s the problem with the news right there – and not just on the topic of AI.

Step-by-step, Togelius explains how it is that journalists buy-in to their own hype, aided and abetted by AI researchers who “always have something to sell”. And then he comes to the heart of the matter:

“Much of ‘artificial intelligence’ is actually human ingenuity. There’s a reason why researchers and developers specialize in applications of AI to specific domains, such as robotics, games or translation: when building a system to solve a problem, lots of knowledge about the actual problem (‘domain knowledge’) is included in the system.”

This is such an important point. AI is about automating (and massively speeding-up) some of things we can do with our minds, but an AI system not a mind in itself. It is not creative, it is not reflective and it is certainly not conscious. The very term ‘artificial intelligence’ might suggest otherwise, but it is the job of good journalism to keep us focused on the reality, which is interesting enough as it is.

But as baseless speculation appears to be the order of the day, let me indulge in some of my own. Could it be that the lazier end of journalism is itself a form of (human-based) artificial intelligence: one that uses (editorial) algorithms to process information pulled-in from other sources, but without actually understanding it?