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The Media Robotics

Replacing Sports Bloggers With an Algorithm 120

Posted by kdawson
from the something-about-overlords dept.
tesmar tips a report up at TechCrunch that begins "Here come the robo sports journalists. While people in the media biz worry about content mills like Demand Media and Associated Content spitting out endless SEO-targeted articles written by low-paid Internet writers, at least those articles are still written by humans. We may no longer need the humans, at least for data-driven stories. A startup in North Carolina, StatSheet, today is launching a remarkable network of 345 sports sites, one dedicated to each Division 1 college basketball team in the US. For instance, there is a site for the Michigan State Spartans, North Carolina Tar Heels, and Ohio Buckeyes. Every story on each site was written by a robot, or to put it more precisely, by StatSheet's content algorithms. 'The posts are completely auto-generated,' says founder Robbie Allen. 'The only human involvement is with creating the algorithms that generate the posts.'"
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Replacing Sports Bloggers With an Algorithm

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  • by kevinNCSU (1531307) on Saturday November 13, 2010 @11:38AM (#34215912)
    I tried reading the first article on the Tar Heels, and as much as I hate reading anything about the Tar Heels the sentences just don't flow together. It's disjointed and mentally uncomfortable to read. I can't imagine anyone using it as an actual replacement for even semi well-written content.
    • by John Hasler (414242) on Saturday November 13, 2010 @11:43AM (#34215934) Homepage

      I can't imagine anyone using it as an actual replacement for even semi well-written content.

      They aren't. They're using it as a replacement for the output of sportswriters.

      • by JustinOpinion (1246824) on Saturday November 13, 2010 @12:30PM (#34216164)
        You joke, but I think this pretty much nails it. There's a lot of content out there that is just a bunch of numbers wrapped up in some formulaic sentences. The results of sports games is an obvious example. Analyses of political campaigns might also be amenable. Perhaps even presenting the results from surveys or scientific studies.

        The important thing here is that this isn't replacing deep, insightful thoughts and analysis, which still has to be done by a human. If you want a reasoned opinion that pulls together the statistics, external factors (e.g. a player's mind-set or personal life), and adds in some humor, then you're going to want a skilled human doing the writing. But if your interest is more along the lines of "Who won, by how much, and what were the main things that led to them winning (e.g. was it strong offense or good defense)?" then auto-generated content is fine. In fact, as with all aspects of automation, the point is to free up humans from doing the boring, silly tasks, so that they can concentrate on the more important tasks.

        After reading some of the auto-generated articles (Michigan State Spartans [spartanball.com], North Carolina Tar Heels [carolinaupdate.com], and Ohio Buckeyes [buckeyesbeat.com]) I must say I'm quite impressed with how good the content is. Obviously it won't be winning any prizes, but I can't say that it's any worse than human-generated summaries of matches. It goes through the details, throwing in some contextual commentary (e.g. "the underdogs") obviously based on a nice database of stats. What's even better is that the articles also present some of the stats themselves, allowing the reader to skip the writeup and focus on the numbers/graphs if they prefer.

        So, frankly, I see this as a good thing. It's a waste of human talent (even mechanical-turk caliber talent) to write a bunch of formulaic summaries when a computer can clearly do a decent job. This lets the humans focus on tasks that are more difficult to automated.
        • by houghi (78078) on Saturday November 13, 2010 @12:54PM (#34216288)

          Perhaps even presenting the results from surveys or scientific studies.

          Or interviews with actors about their latest movie, where they are telling how great it was working with X and Y. Or about any PR stuff going out into the world.

          If they are just formula's around numbers, just give us the numbers. No need for all the fluff around it.

          It says more about the lousy writing people are used to then the quality of a new Lisa script.

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Tacvek (948259)

            The raw numbers are useful, but many people would like to read a quick summary of the highlights of the statistics, rather than having to read through them themselves.

            Somebody who is not well acquainted with the specific stats may have trouble telling what is unusual, or combining them together to reach a conclusion. Even those familiar with the statistics would often find it quicker to read the computer generated summary than trying to skim the numbers to determine if they are worth spend more time on.

            But

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Tom (822)

            If they are just formula's around numbers, just give us the numbers. No need for all the fluff around it.

            You're a geek. So am I, but here's a secret I learnt: Lots of people are afraid of numbers. Much in the same way they are afraid of punks - they don't really think they will harm them, but they prefer to have them accompanied by words/police.

            • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

              by Anonymous Coward

              here's a secret I learnt: Lots of people are afraid of numbers.

              Generally speaking, you're right. That said, I'm an engineer, and I've never met a geek more into numbers than the sports fans I've met. They might not understand the implications of the stats they're spewing out, but that doesn't mean they don't have them memorized.

              The site is going after the right demographics. Sports fans are hungry for numbers like these.

        • by AlpineR (32307)

          Perhaps even presenting the results from surveys or scientific studies.

          I was just thinking: yeah the writing is dry and disjointed, much like my scientific articles. I wouldn't mind a robo writing assistant to help me put out journal articles. Much of it is, in fact, dry and formulaic.

          • by plover (150551) *

            I was just thinking: yeah the writing is dry and disjointed, much like my scientific articles. I wouldn't mind a robo writing assistant to help me put out journal articles. Much of it is, in fact, dry and formulaic.

            That's because facts are generally dry and formulaic.

            Related, I've heard that the "TV Sportscaster" is the single most truthful person on the evening news. He outputs facts: scores, stats, etc. When he shows highlights, it's footage from an event that actually happened, and usually includes appropriate context such as "and the Vikings went on to lose it, 24-10."

            Meteorologists try to show us the future, and while they have a measurable accuracy rating, what they say is certainly not fact.

            News reporters are

            • by Sethumme (1313479)
              You forgot to add how the footage accompanying the anchors' stories are many times not actual footage of the event, but rather footage showing elements that are similar to those in the story.
            • by DavoMan (759653)
              best post ever
        • > the point is to free up humans from doing the boring, silly tasks...

          Unfortunately, there is a large population of humans who have no skills beyond what are characterized here as boring, silly tasks, nor much inclination to step up and learn how to be more productive. And regardless of whether they deserve to be employed or not, making them unemployed doesn't help the the population as a whole.

          So my applause goes more often to technology that helps people work smarter, not as often to that which o
          • It's a flaw in the economic system that has only come to light in recent years, not anything to do with the value of automation technology.
            • by ultranova (717540)

              It's a flaw in the economic system that has only come to light in recent years, not anything to do with the value of automation technology.

              It's a flaw that came to light during the Industrial Revolution, and in fact hit so hard it spawned Communism as a response. It is also a flaw that's inherent to Capitalism and can't be fixed under it.

              Of course, as soon as automation catches up with all tasks - that is, as soon as Artificial Intelligence catches up with Human Intelligence, at least as far as practical m

              • by wlad (1171323)
                Yeah, as soon as the AIs can take over all our jobs I'm afraid the general public won't get the profit from it. The divide between poor and rich will become wider not smaller. There will be a few very rich people controlling the machines and billions of poor. Knowing human nature a bit 'they took our jobs!', I think we'll just smash up the machines, lynch those controlling them with pitchforks and torches, and start the nonsense all over.
                I'd very much like it if we could keep the advantages of technology
          • Unfortunately, there is a large population of humans who have no skills beyond what are characterized here as boring, silly tasks, nor much inclination to step up and learn how to be more productive.

            And strangely, this description coincides with the characteristics of sport fans I know. They will probably be content with whatever they're fed. No, I am not a fan of sports. Mod me to oblivion.

        • by ultranova (717540)

          There's a lot of content out there that is just a bunch of numbers wrapped up in some formulaic sentences. The results of sports games is an obvious example. Analyses of political campaigns might also be amenable. Perhaps even presenting the results from surveys or scientific studies.

          Of course, this rises a question: Why don't I simply get the numbers from Wikipedia, RSS feeds or whatever and run the algorithm myself? Why bother with a website, which is bound to be sub-optimal for my uses due to the demand

      • Exactly as most on the sports beat never passed the rocks for Jocks class, former athletes that never made, and most cant read past the 12th grade. Robots might be a better option.
      • by Alioth (221270)

        It looks like the old sysadmin insult, "Go away - or I will replace you with a very short shell script" has actually happened to the sports writers...

    • by WrongSizeGlass (838941) on Saturday November 13, 2010 @11:47AM (#34215962)
      Hard to read? Disjointed? Mentally uncomfortable? Sounds like it could fit right in here on /. ;-)
      • by St.Creed (853824) on Saturday November 13, 2010 @11:53AM (#34215988)

        Hard to read? Disjointed? Mentally uncomfortable? Sounds like it could fit right in here on /. ;-)

        A clever attempt, RoboWrongSizeGlass, but not clever enough! Trying to point the finger at humans while sneaking in another templated contribution! Haha! Your plans will never work! :P

      • Actually Slashdot could use a submission bot: Most submissions just copy the first paragraph of the article anyway. That should not be hard to automatize. For the title, just use the page title. The main problem is to detect content which would likely be a successful submission. Maybe a Bayesian filter could be used, which is trained on past accepted and rejected submissions. Connect it to a spider constantly searching the web, and you can automatically fill Slashdot.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mysidia (191772)

      It doesn't have to fool humans (unfortunately). It just has to fool Googlebot

    • by St.Creed (853824) on Saturday November 13, 2010 @11:54AM (#34215998)

      I can't imagine anyone using it as an actual replacement for even semi well-written content.

      It's a bit uncomfortable to read in spots, but way above the quality of most blogs and nothing you can actually point out as an error. So if they manage not to swamp the sites in ads, and provide good statistics as well, I can't see why they couldn't get a rather large take of the advertising action - large in proportion to the manhours invested in writing articles, that is. It could be very lucrative and if it is - well, say goodbye to a lot of reporters who aren't the primetime writers but just pad out the papers: they're going to be automated away or at best, write the templates for the robowriters.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by ThreeGigs (239452)

        Lucrative is right. They seem to have garnered 1.3 million dollars in funding for their efforts.

      • by Raenex (947668)

        It's a bit uncomfortable to read in spots, but way above the quality of most blogs and nothing you can actually point out as an error.

        The problem isn't the quality of the writing, it's the content. It's extremely bland. The sports writers, both reporters and blog writers, are usually fans of the sports, and they describe the highlights of the game. They talk about how players peformed, about controversial calls by the refs, last second shots, etc.

      • Really? you obviously haven't read real emotive sports talk when real people are involved http://www.livefootballchat.com/ [livefootballchat.com]
    • by drsmack1 (698392)

      And a robot will never be able to write a article like this one: http://bluesundaycolts.blogspot.com/2010/11/what-peyton-manning-is-doing-and-how-to.html [blogspot.com]

    • by mfh (56)

      It's not written for you, so they simply do not care. It's written for Google and other search engines to help push whatever their advertisers are selling.

      The age of internet search is dead. We need something more intuitive and something decidedly human.

  • by nitehawk214 (222219) on Saturday November 13, 2010 @11:39AM (#34215914)

    This post was written by a robot.

  • Not bad... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Jazz-Masta (240659) on Saturday November 13, 2010 @11:44AM (#34215936)

    I've read a couple articles and they are no worse than the SEO-targeted content written by freelancers odesk for $2/hr (and english as a second or third language).

    Seems as though the "algorithm" is quite elaborate - taking into account odds of winning as well. Lines such as "The [team] was not supposed to win this game, but made it happen" and combined player statistics "Coming off a poorly put together team last year, this year, the [team] looks to have greater talent."

    It reminds me of how someone in Junior high would write. Impressive. Similar to MIT's paper generator: http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2005/paper.html [mit.edu]

    PHP + MySQL + Mad Libs for Sports.

    • by dadioflex (854298)
      Automated news... flame me, but I find the idea quite liberating. I get angry at some of the crap I read, and hear, masquerading as news.I hate THOSE GUYS. If it's just a formula delivered by a script... I can relax a little and let the despair seep in naturally the way it's supposed to.
    • As I suspected it would, the first sentence includes the word "momentum."
  • ... was the article written by a human, or a computer? Can you tell the difference? I remember when robots starting being deployed in factories, that there were concerns about workers sabotaging the robots which were destined to steal their jobs. Will this happen in the sports newsroom?

    "The RoboSportReporter is broken again. It looks and smells like someone poured a beer into him."

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by John Hasler (414242)

      "The RoboSportReporter is broken again. It looks and smells like someone poured a beer into him."

      They were just trying to make him more realistic.

  • by tocs (866673) on Saturday November 13, 2010 @11:50AM (#34215970)
    Now I just need to find a robot to read all these sports blogs to free up time for things I want to do.
  • The mascot for Ohio University is the Bobcats
  • fans (Score:3, Funny)

    by emkyooess (1551693) on Saturday November 13, 2010 @11:52AM (#34215984)

    Now we need a sports fan algorithm to rid ourselves of all these needless sports fans in the world and replace them with something more worth the resources.

  • xkcd (Score:5, Funny)

    by Jazzbunny (1251002) on Saturday November 13, 2010 @11:53AM (#34215994)
  • by Anonymous Coward

    This is the DJ 3000. It plays CDs automatically, and it has three distinct varieties of inane chatter:
    - Hey hey -- how about that weather out there?
    - Woah, that was the caller from hell.
    - Well, hot dog -- we have a weiner.

    - Those clowns in congress did it again -- what a bunch of clowns.
    How does it keep up with the news like that?

    • by monkyyy (1901940)

      - Those clowns in congress did it again -- what a bunch of clowns.

      u missed the the calling every single last member of the other party terrorists

  • for automated theater and restaurant critics.. The human responses will be priceless.

  • Impressed (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Andy Smith (55346) on Saturday November 13, 2010 @11:58AM (#34216018) Homepage

    I read the first article on the first linked site and I was impressed. I wouldn't have known it was generated by a computer. Even knowing that it was computer-generated, I'd still be happy with the quality for this kind of reporting. Very good.

  • by Chemisor (97276) on Saturday November 13, 2010 @12:07PM (#34216054)

    I am going to guess that there will not be any humans involved in reading the output either.

  • tiny issue (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sribe (304414) on Saturday November 13, 2010 @12:12PM (#34216068)

    Can you copyright the output of an algorithm? Seriously, copyright requires a creative element...

    • Creative my . It's a good algorithm, I will concede. But very short on vocabulary. Even the poorest sports writer is read before he is paid. Comparing this with stuff I would read 1. The vocabulary is tiny 2. The writer sounds disinterested and random. 3. Too much appeal to odds, without any courage, zeal, endurance, skill, fighting spirit
    • by seifried (12921)
      Tell that to a phone book or other assemblage of facts.
      • by maxwell demon (590494) on Saturday November 13, 2010 @03:22PM (#34217172) Journal

        Tell that to a phone book or other assemblage of facts.

        I tried, but the phone book wouldn't listen to me.

      • Re:tiny issue (Score:4, Insightful)

        by slashqwerty (1099091) on Saturday November 13, 2010 @04:56PM (#34217636)

        Tell that to a phone book or other assemblage of facts.

        Perhaps you're confused about the outcome of Feist Publications, Inc., v. Rural Telephone Service Co [wikipedia.org]. Phone books and other collections of facts may not be copyrighted because they lack creativity. Hence the question:

        Can you copyright the output of an algorithm? Seriously, copyright requires a creative element...

        While sribe focuses on the creative element one must also ask who the copyright would go to. The constitution grants congress the power

        To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

        To my understanding this has always been interpreted to mean authors have rights to their writings and inventors have rights to their discoveries.

      • by sribe (304414)

        Perhaps you're unaware that phone books are not copyrighted? Perhaps you're unaware that this issue went all the way to the Supreme Court?

  • by MachDelta (704883) on Saturday November 13, 2010 @12:14PM (#34216078)

    Why am I suddenly reminded of this t-shirt? [thinkgeek.com] :)

  • by 1u3hr (530656) on Saturday November 13, 2010 @12:15PM (#34216088)
    At least we know that Slashdot isn't generated by robots. A robot wouldn't make the idiotic mistakes that the current human (for want of a better word) editors do. E.g. "one dedicated to each Division 1 college basketball tam in the US." Robots don't suffer from dyslexia, and aren't too lazy to use a spell check.
    • At least we know that Slashdot isn't generated by robots. A robot wouldn't make the idiotic mistakes that the current human (for want of a better word) editors do. E.g. "one dedicated to each Division 1 college basketball tam in the US." Robots don't suffer from dyslexia, and aren't too lazy to use a spell check.

      Robots wouldn't have so many dupes either (as they are the easiest thing to check for). As soon as /. goes a week without a duplicate story, then we know the robots have taken over.

    • by jamesh (87723)

      A robot wouldn't make the idiotic mistakes that the current human

      Unless of course it was programmed to deceive the audience into believing that it was a human...

  • I read over some of the auto-generated content and the main thing I notice is that sentences don't connect to one another. It's like a chatbot where it says one thing, then another, where the two sentences have no connection; you could reverse their order and they're read just the same.
  • I like it (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Now sports editors have something to show novice reporters. "If you can't give me something a whole lot better than this, you're fired".

    It's a reminder that standards for every knowledge-based profession are going up every year, driven by the combination of the Internet, globalization, and Moore's Law. And this is just the start of it for journalism.

    • Journalistic standards won't go up, the scare stories about immigrants and terrorists will be autogenerated. I mean they're already pretty much cut and pasted from last week's shock horror exclusives as it is.

  • Emotionless Facts (Score:2, Insightful)

    by denshao2 (1515775)
    Part of good sports writing is that it evokes emotions. I read some samples and it's devoid of feeling. It is also completely unable to recount similar events in the past. In fact, no actual events are mentioned beyond statistical data. I want to know about fights during a game or the nearly perfect game that got spoiled.
    • > Part of good sports writing is that it evokes emotions.

      Then I've never read any good sports writing (unless boredom counts).

  • Let me know when the algorithm can insult rivals.

  • this looks like prime content for the humans that would fail it, too.
    • on the other hand, reminded of a Numb3rs episode wherein a supercomputer was programmed to appear to pass Turing tests.

  • In the UK the tabloids have been auto-generating content for at least 20 years.

  • Sure its fine to have a data driven writing algorithm that spits out a decent string of sentences. But who are the low paid joes who key on the raw data?
  • to replace the 'editors' on Slashdot.

    • by Fnord666 (889225)

      This would be great to replace the 'editors' on Slashdot.

      Isn't that what Firehose is supposed to do?

  • Verb Selection (Score:3, Interesting)

    by nuckfuts (690967) on Saturday November 13, 2010 @01:31PM (#34216550)

    I've always been amused by how sports reporters vary the verb used to describe a win. They can't just keep saying "Team A beat Team B" over and over, so they mix it up, based on how wide the score was. For a win with a small margin, they might say "Detroit edged Ottawa", or "The Rangers slid past the Ducks". For a large margin, perhaps "The Coyotes pummeled the Blues". I give extra credit if the verb matches the subject, as in "So-and-so doused the Flames".

    I think it would be a lot of fun to write a program for this.

  • That's kind of lame. It's just a one-paragraph summary of the game.

    A more promising approach would be to start with a play by play summary [go.com]. Football play-by-plays look like this:

    • 1st and 10 at ATL 20 (Shotgun) M.Ryan pass short right to T.Gonzalez to ATL 23 for 3 yards (J.Johnson).
    • 2nd and 7 at ATL 23 M.Ryan sacked at ATL 13 for -10 yards (T.Suggs).
    • 3rd and 17 at ATL 13 (Shotgun) M.Ryan pass deep right to R.White pushed ob at ATL 41 for 28 yards (E.Reed).
    • 1st and 10 at ATL 41 (Shotgun) M.Ryan pass short
  • For hockey, I skip the article and go straight to the boxscore. It has this great innovation: presenting the information in chronological order so you can follow along, rather than describing them in reverse go-ahead order.

    If you see a 10 minute misconduct by some skill dude, you might have to read the article to find out whether the guy went ape, or just forget to tie down his jersey in a tug fest of the midgets. This is exactly the information that's not likely to be found in the robospiel. Sometimes I

  • I could write better while I'm half-asleep and stoned on cough syrup and vicoden, and I hate basketball.
  • Am I a butterfly imagining that everybody on Slashdot is a bot discussing a story about bots, or am I a bot posting about people or bots on Slashdot imagining that I'm a bot or a butterfly or something?

  • The "point" forecasts on the National Weather Service website are created by a robot off digital - gridded - data. Here [weather.gov] A little clunky at times, but there are forecasts for either 5x5km or 2.5x-2.5km grids across the US, more than a million forecast areas updated anywhere from hourly to a few times a day. The human forecasters create the gridded data, so they focus on the data, not the words.
  • Good thing for regular news here in the USA that our news isn't data-driven... it's opinion driven, and you need a person to make up an opinion... or do you? I'm pretty sure someone could generate the fox news content just by scanning cnn's articles and negating all of the opinion statements.

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