Gang-gang. Experts see perceptive, dexterous robots taking every job there is

Gang-gang. Experts see perceptive, dexterous robots taking every job there is

Readers, what if this column is written not by the delightful, warm, human, engaging, flaxen-haired, designated ACT Living Treasure you imagine, but (horror!) by a robot?

Over Christmas your columnist was half-listening to an ABC Radio National program about the ways in which robots are now doing work we always thought would only ever be done by humans. Then, my hitherto flaccid ears suddenly pricked up as Martin Ford, Silicon Valley guru and author of Rise Of The Robots, testified that there are already robot journalists at work in some newsrooms.

Maestro Nicholas Milton's (cheap) successor conducts the CSO.

Maestro Nicholas Milton's (cheap) successor conducts the CSO.

Ever since listening to Ford I have been looking at my newsroom colleagues more quizzically, resisting, just, the temptation to prod them to see if they are made of flesh or Kevlar.

And what if this very column is done by a robot? What if the intelligence the Gang-gang column so famously radiates is generated by AI, by an artificially intelligent contraption?


But, teeming readers, would you even mind? Can you imagine that a robot journalist might somehow be an improvement on a flesh and blood one? Those of you (living fossils, much represented in this paper's Letters pages) who think that immaculately employed apostrophes and perfect spelling are the most important features of any writing about anything, might thrill to the journalism of robots that, robotically, always get these things right.

Ford and futurists like him say that we used to imagine that robots will only ever take over repetitive manufacturing jobs and that all other sorts of work would be beyond them. But in fact, Ford reports, here come the robots, after all our jobs.

He says robots are poised to replace humans as teachers, journalists, lawyers and others in the service sector. And we thought robots would never have our dexterity and yet, Ford alerts us, there's a dexterous robot being built for use in the fast food industry.

"Essentially, it's a machine that produces very, very high quality hamburgers. It can produce about 350 to 400 per hour; they come out fully configured ... ready to serve to the customer. It's all fresh vegetables and freshly ground meat ... These are actually much higher quality hamburgers than you'd find at a typical fast food restaurant."

This columnist found that news mildly alarming (since churning out five Gang-gang columns a week is work that in some ways resembles the crafting of hamburgers). But then Ford really put the wind up me with his reflections on computer-written news stories.

"Essentially [the computer] looks at the raw data that's provided from some source, perhaps from a baseball game, and it translates that into a real narrative. They're generating thousands and thousands of stories ... and they appear on a number of websites and in the news media ... Right now it tends to be focused on those areas that you might consider to be a bit more formulaic, for example sports reporting and also financial reporting."

Those of us who are doing work that we think of as being somehow "creative" and thus out of reach of AI will have to think again. Also on ABC Radio National much was made of a piece of music composed by a robot and recently given its world premiere by a fine symphony orchestras.

But until a robot feels a soul-boosting buzz (as Finnish composer Jean Sibelius did) from watching a flight of swans, one doubts it will write any music worthy of performance by Dr Nicholas Milton and the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. Although, alas, and as mused about in an earlier column, one can imagine orchestral conductors like Dr Milton being replaced, as Martin Ford imagines teachers and journalists and others being replaced, by robots. Always cash-strapped, symphony orchestras will find robot conductors (no international air fares, no risks of last-minute cancellations because of sickness or being stuck by fog in Vienna) so very cheap and worry-free to use.

One's first instinct is to stand up for Team Human in the coming confrontation with robots but we all know of people who already perform like robots and whose robotic replacements might be more charismatic. What of the MPs who, in Parliament, always vote at their party's call (and never think of thinking for themselves at all)? What if the federal Liberal Party has been stealthily building and pre-selecting robots for decades? That would explain so much, including Senator Eric Abetz's opinions and the strange, synthetic voice with which he utters them.

We don't care if robots replace human Liberals but the loss of engagingly flawed, human sports reporters would be a tragedy. For those of us who collect cliches (for they give comfort, like a familiar old cardigan, like a dear old well-worn teddy bear) human sports reporters are a rich source of collectibles.

One favourite used a lot this year, has football (soccer) reporters saying a defending team has been "saved by the woodwork" when a shot ricochets off a goal's posts or crossbar. This is a cliche with fine, literary, surreal qualities because it imagines the woodwork, as if by magic, moving to bunt away a ball that would otherwise have gone into the net.

Can posts and crossbars do this? Yes they can. University tests show that when enough passionate fans positively will a shot not to go in their team's net this sets up powerful vibrations of electro-spiritual psychokinetic astro-energies. These can make a goal's woodwork duck and weave in the same way a water diviner's rod magically quivers and lurches when it detects water.

And this columnist is Marie of Romania.

Ian Warden

Ian Warden is a columnist for The Canberra Times

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