Botweek’s Closing Circle

Botweek is over, but the bot conversation has never been richer

(Yolanda Sun)

We devote a whole week to bots every year because they make our lives easier, our work smoother, and tedious tasks more fun—and because it’s increasingly clear that they’re going to be here for a while. So before we go, a brief moment of “We are…here.”

Chat Bubbles

There was that Facebook thing, and the conversation about news bots and the business of journalism has reached a new peak. Bloomberg’s editor in chief—having appointed an “automation czarina”—called automation “crucial to the future of journalism”:

If we embrace it as a newsroom, apply the brains of our 2,400 journalists and analysts as well as the values of independence, transparency and rigor that Bloomberg’s journalism at its best exemplifies, then we can lead the rest of our industry—and write a lot of amazing stories in the process.

We already use automation quite a lot—to alert our readers to news, to customize news and to spot trends. It plays a big role in many of our new initiatives: In Daybreak, it will let customers tailor their morning news; our equity Movers project relies on computers to tell us when a share has jumped or sunk; Project Cyborg is helping our editors send headlines this earnings season on hundreds of U.S. companies; and computers are helping us instantly translate stories into other languages. But we have only scratched the surface.

Dan Grover, a messaging system product manager, sums up the chat-bot hyperbole at the beginning of a long post on the challenges of conversational UI:

Conversations, writes WIRED, can do things traditional GUIs can’t. Matt Hartman equates the surge in text-driven apps as a kind of “hidden homescreen”. TechCrunch says “forget apps, now bots take over”. The creator of Fin thinks it’s a new paradigm all apps will move to. Dharmesh Shah wonders whether the rise of conversational UI will be the downfall of designers. Design, says Emmet Connolly at Intercom is a conversation.

Benedict Evans prophecized that the new lay of the land is “all messaging expands until it includes software.”

Bot Complications

People have a lot of issues, and people make bots. So, gendered bots reinforce gender stereotypes. It also turns out, you might be talking to more humans than you think when you chat up a bot. And lest we forget, everyone’s least-favorite chatbot, Clippy, was creepy from the get-go. (Here’s the man who killed him.)

The ethics of botmaking are also getting extra attention as large brand-connected bots begin stumbling in public more frequently. Stefan Bohacek, creator of Botwiki, made a code of conduct for botmakers, and has assembled an extensive primer on ways botmakers can make ethical bots. (He also runs a botmaker Slack that’s open for business, just DM @botwikidotorg.) Using the Tay debacle as a point of departure, Sarah Jeong digs deep on ethics and botbuilding with Darius Kazemi and other bot-builders:

As I spoke to each botmaker, it became increasingly clear that the community at large was tied together by crisscrossing lines of influence. There is a well-known body of talks, essays, and blog posts that form a common ethical code. The botmakers have even created open source blacklists of slurs that have become Step 0 in keeping their bots in line.

Under the Froth, People Are Working

While tech reporters and media executives ponder whether bots will save journalism, some journalists and developers are building highly ambitious bots to take on their work. Robin Kwong, special projects editor at the Financial Times, is building a bot to do (a large part of) his job:

I want to create a tool that will help other Financial Times editors do what I have become quite good at: running series and managing projects. I will produce this tool in three months’ time, by July 19.

This tool should be a newsroom resource for editors when they are put in charge of running a series or project. It should guide them through the process, ensure they enlist and notify the right people, and make sure that sufficient time is allocated for each part of the process.

This tool should establish best practices for running a series, standardise the production process, and encourage a project management culture. It should obviate the need for each editor to re-invent the wheel every time.

It should make editors’ lives easier, not more complicated. It needs to be very easy to find and incredibly visible. It needs to be intuitively and obviously useful because this will never work if its use is enforced or mandated.

And, of course, many news orgs have spun out their own bots on the Facebook Messenger platform. There’s TechCrunch, certainly. Wall Street Journal? Has one. Mic’s is maybe en route. CNN, check.

As we wrap our third year of #Botweek, the real variety of news bots is becoming clearer. This week alone, we’ve seen:

…and those are just the bots people had time to write about. Automation already provides practical assistance to journalist and newsrooms all over, and open source projects like these are making it ever easier for news organizations to take advantage of bot benefits.

So, How Do We Feel About Bots?

For now, until the bots take over, what happens next to bots in journalism is up to all of us.

As SmarterChild once said, “Well, what would you like to do?”



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