Will RoboNews Be the Death of Original Journalism?


What do we find creepier than CNN “beaming” holographic guests into the studio to make their election coverage more interesting? The idea of having an avatar deliver up our evening news.

As we write, smarty-pants grad students at the Intelligent Information Laboratory at Northwestern University have put down their video gaming consoles and Star Wars action figures to design a futuristic Web site — News At Seven — that automatically generates virtual newscasts “pulled from wire stories, images, videos and blogs all linked by a common news topic.”

The project is being funded by a National Science Foundation grant.

We have looked into the eyes of this Big Brother beast, friends, and her name is Alex (she’s based on a character pulled from a computer game called Half Life 2). The avatar is a slow-witted brunette who wears hipster outfits and speaks in a jerky, monotonous voice that conjures images of Arnold Schwarzenegger: I’ll-be-back-after-these-messages. Apparently she is “the future of the future.”

Alex is assigned an opinion collected from Web sites linked to specific buzzwords like president, war, or vomit. She banters with another [fake] news anchor until the image fades to an alleyway with suited clones marching up and down. One lone ranger gets the attention of the camera and offers his commentary on the news story based on information gathered off of blogs.

News At Seven started out as a good old news aggregation idea, but as soon as they introduced a virtual studio and a virtual news team, the idea became as annoying as waiting for a dial-up modem to connect. The images can be off, like showing a map of Canada when talking about the Middle East, or showing a mirthful Anna Nicole Smith for a story about her son’s death.

So maybe Ann Curry’s job isn’t in danger yet. It should be noted that Ananova, the world’s first virtual newscaster has been around since 2000. Haven’t heard of her before? Neither had we.

Maybe if in the future we all have a halting way of speaking and make stoic attempts at sharing an emotion this will finally take off. Call us old-fashioned, but for now we like having real people to make fun of. We’re not so sure Obama’s new FCC Transition Team co-chairs would agree.

– Amy Kraft

Photo by: Nathan Nichols