Robot journalism - Joel Hall

Being a print journalist these days is not the easiest thing to do. There's a lot of competition that newspaper people of the early 20th Century never had to think about.

It's been well publicized that the advent of the Internet has been a double-edged sword, with a spiked handle, for the newspaper industry.

More and more people have access to the news because of the Internet, which most journalists, I believe, would argue is a good thing. However, the immediate nature of the Internet makes newspaper deadlines crazier than they already were, and the free nature of the Internet chops at the legs of advertising revenue, two things that many journalists would argue are very, very bad.

Due to recent activity by engineers in Japan, however, the blog-o-sphere and the Twitter-verse are the very least of my worries. The things I fear most these day are robots -- not ones with laser beams and heat-seeking missiles, but robots with media badges.

That's right. According to Singularity Hub, a blog which follows the latest trends in robotic and genetic research, engineers at the Intelligent Systems Informatics Lab at Tokyo University have developed a robot that can autonomously explore its surroundings, report what it finds, and instantly publish those findings to the web.

I love Japan for the effort and time its inventors take to create and perfect things that make life easier (Sony Playstation, high-speed trains, instant noodles) and things that are hilarious and pointless (Pokemon, painful game shows, hats that dispense toilet paper). However, I really wish Japan would curb its enthusiasm in regards to making a robot that guns for my job.

The robot, which stands slightly shorter than the average Japanese man, sits on a Segway-like base and consists of a range finder, a camera, and a computer control unit. Apparently, the robot can travel unassisted, ask a series of questions, and determine what is relevant.

Sensors on the robot apparently allow it to detect changes in the environment and respond accordingly. Its onboard camera apparently allows it to take pictures of interesting things it encounters, and it reportedly can also use Internet searches to get a better understanding of a topic.

There are lots of RSS (really simple syndication) feeds now that can grab relevant information off of the Internet and publish it to the web. However, this is the first time I have heard of a robot generating primary-source information.

While the device is bulky and has its limitations (I'm sure it couldn't survive a TAZER shot to the chest and live to write about it), on a basic level, it is doing exactly what a reporter does: Ask questions, extract relevant information, and present it to the public in an easy-to-digest format.

I'm a big fan of Japanese inventions, but this one leaves me ready to reach for a blue blankie and curl up in the fetal position.

It's hard enough to push out copy these days without having to worry about loosing a byline to R2-D2.

I guess until they find a robot with enough patience to sit through a Clayton County government meeting, I'll still have a job.

Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at jhall@news-daily.com.