The media are always full of articles about how robots are going to replace people in the workplace. It’s easy for journalists to write articles like this, because we hacks can console ourselves with the thought that we’re not going to be made redundant by automation any time soon.
Or so it seemed. Now China Daily has begun featuring a “News Robot” on their home page. He’s called Duan Duan, but is not, as the name suggests, a New Romantic band from the 1980s. Instead he appears to be a young boy in short pants with prominent ears.
“Hello, Welcome to China Daily,” he says. “I am happy to talk about the two sessions with you. Let’s get started.”
He provides a list of suggested questions about the Liǎnghuì (currently taking place in Beijing), but we want to go deeper, find out about the robot behind the headlines.
“Hi Duan Duan,” we ask, “how are you today?”
“Maybe these links below will interest you,” he responds, providing a list of articles about President Xi’s foreign policy. He sounds like an American in his mid-20s, not like the cheerful urchin depicted.
“Do you ever read beijingkids?” we persist.
“Maybe these links below will interest you,” he answers. He is curiously evasive, and we move in for the kill with tough, proper journalist questions.
“What have you got to hide, Duan Duan – if that really is your name?”
This time he serves up a list of links in silence; one of them criticizing British companies for not paying minimum wage to their workers. Clearly he doesn’t like my tone.
The suspicion is growing that Duan Duan is not a “news robot”, or any kind of robot at all, but just a search engine with a cartoon and a voice sample attached. We try one more question.
“What’s the First Law of Robotics?”
“Maybe these links below – ”
But we have closed the browser.
It’s not the first time China Daily have promoted robot journalism. In 2017 they brought the news of a robotic reporter working for Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily. “Xiao Nan” took less than a second to write a 300 character piece about the Spring Festival travel rush; even Pauline van Hasselt can’t knock them out that quickly. However, the robot journalist’s creator admitted there were a few drawbacks.
“At present, robots are unable to conduct face-to-face interviews, cannot respond intuitively with follow-up questions and don’t have the ability to select the news angle from an interview or conversation,” he said.
So we might be able to keep our jobs a little longer then. Maybe we can even ask for a pay rise –
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