This Robot Journalist Reports Live by Listening to Everything

The FOMObile prints a magazine just minutes after an event.

Apr 14 2014, 2:35pm
Image: Space Caviar

In the quietly simmering humans-versus-robots battle for jobs, the robots are fast gaining ground, and journalists are by no means immune. 

It’s easy to see why robots might be better at purely mechanical tasks than humans, but creative types tend to think of themselves as somehow impervious to algorithmic replacement. But while machines might not have the imagination for deftly nuanced turns of phrase, we’ve already seen that they have a fair few advantages in meeting the demands of modern media: computer journalists are a dab hand at analysing reams of data, they can almost cut out the middleman in packaging viral listicles, and as a final kick in the teeth to overworked human reporters sweating away in newsrooms, readers even think they’re more trustworthy.

While computers might be an obvious choice for the recent penchant for “data journalism,” they’re not letting themselves be pigeonholed and there’s now also a journo robo-replacement that can report on live events.

Image: Space Caviar

FOMO (named for the “fear of missing out” phenomenon bred by social media) is a print magazine made by design collaborative Space Caviar, and generated entirely by algorithm. The content produced is printed in situ on a kind of collapsible publishing station called the FOMObile that even has its own solar-powered wi-fi hotspot.

But what’s most interesting about the device is that it records actual real-life interactions as well as digital information by using voice recognition to pick up what people are saying. It also checks social media interactions on the topic—like human reporters are expected to do these days, but presumably with rather more aplomb—and “contextual metadata” on the event or location it’s at.

The good news for stressed-out journalism school graduates is that this is more of an artistic project rather than an actual attempt to steal their jobs. “We’re very interested in experiments that somehow address some of the ways that technology is bringing cultural disruption as well as the economic destruction that’s often discussed,” Joseph Grima, one of the designers behind FOMO, told me on the phone. The FOMObile just had its first outing at Milan Design Week, where it “reported” on a series of talks in the NIKE Aero-static Dome to produce 12 editions, each published just a few minutes after the event.

The reportage isn't exactly Longreads material, but it's impressive nonetheless. Top image: the cover of FOMO's Marco Rainò issue; bottom: FOMO's Pier Nucleo issue, hosted by Dezeen

A former magazine editor, Grima said he was inspired by the rise of algorithms in sports and news journalism and Bruce Sterling’s suggestion that “events are the new magazines.” The decision to produce a print magazine through a decidedly digital process was an attempt to make physical what’s becoming increasingly ephemeral.

“It was something that was between a serious proposal for a technology platform and a sort of dadaist performance,” said Grima. The output isn’t exactly Times style; in a statement the designers wrote, “In Dadaist spirit, it is not so much an experiment in precision documentation as in finding alternative methods of representation and documentation of events,” which doesn’t sound like it would get past most editors.

The result (which you can see courtesy of design site Dezeen) is a kind of analog mash-up of soundbites, tweets, Instagram pictures, and fragments of text from other resources. “The more people there are and the more interactions there are around a given topic in a certain location, the better it works,” said Grima. He suggested that FOMO would work well at a big event like South by Southwest or even an uprising or riot, where online interactions run parallel to incidents on the ground.

Image: Space Caviar

This, he said, was a first application of the machine, and results would vary depending on context and the evolution of the tech. He described the publications as “a sophisticated but abstract infographic” and admitted that the voice recognition aspect was currently less reliable than more easily recognisable components like tweets and Instagram photos, and that its success depended a bit on acoustics and background noise too.

The designers plan to work on FOMO further, including using it at the inauguration of Venice Biennale in June. “What we’re also interested in is the idea that this is kind of an open source platform that almost any different app could do it and different algorithms could be generated—some more scientific, others more abstract and expressionistic,” said Grima.

If any wordsmiths feel threatened by that, rest assured FOMO requires some human intervention, like setting different parameters for the software. Oh, and someone has to sew the pages of the magazine together.