Futures Lab Update #152: Chatbots for News

    by Reuben Stern
    May 12, 2016
    A screenshot from this week's Futures Lab Update video.

    This story first appeared on RJI’s Futures LabReporting by Katy Mersmann and Berkeley Lovelace.

    Automated chatbots have the potential to combine the credibility of traditional journalism with the personalized feel of text messaging a friend. We find out how several news outlets are already experimenting with the technology, and we explore some possibilities for the future.


    For more information:

    • According to Facebook, Messenger bots “can provide anything from automated subscription content like weather and traffic updates, to customized communications like receipts, shipping notifications, and live automated messages.” Details on how to create bots for Facebook’s app are explained in this overview and on Facebook’s developer website. Already “tens of thousands” of developers are experimenting with the technology, according to TechCrunch.
    • Kik also offers instructions for developers who want to design and build their own chatbots for the app. For more about how Kik’s bots might be used for news, check out our previous Futures Lab report.
    • Despite the general enthusiasm, TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas says the “latest wave of chatbots will not live up to their paradigm shifting billing. And those chatbots that do impress will not really be doing much chatting.” That’s partly because, as Bloomberg reports, many of the seemingly automated concierges, shopping assistants and e-mail schedulers “are largely powered by people, clicking behind the curtain and making it look like magic.”
    • Another reason may be that the potential for bots to act like humans may be overstated. As explained in this thorough overview from Wired, although there has been great progress in making machines understand the ways in which humans talk, “we’re nowhere near the point where we can carry on a completely real conversation with a bot.” Still, the hope is that “this technology can help generate that kind of conversational data needed to train deep neural networks and push the state-of-the-art much further.”
    • Quartz was an early adopter of the conversation-style of delivering news stories, incorporating the format into its app released in February. Mark Glaser offers a glowing assessment in this MediaShift podcast.
    • Mic released a bot for the Kik messaging app called TrumpChat, an election-centered chatbot that shares news, insights, editorials and commentaries throughout the election in the voice of Donald Trump.

    Reuben Stern is the deputy director of the Futures Lab at the Reynolds Journalism Institute and host and co-producer of the weekly Futures Lab video update.

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    The Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Futures Lab video update features a roundup of fresh ideas, techniques and developments to help spark innovation and change in newsrooms across all media platforms. Visit the RJI website for the full archive of Futures Lab videos, or download the receive email notification of each new episode.

    Tagged: chatbots facebook messenger futures lab kik mic quartz reuben stern rji techcrunch trumpchat

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