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Artificial intelligence and voice-user interface have the potential to revolutionize the news industry.


Imagine a day when news comes to you automatically and is customized to deliver information based not only on what interests you specifically, but also on what you’re doing at that moment, where you are and what kind of mood you’re in. You’re able to ask questions about a news event or topic and, if something intrigues or irritates you, it’s possible to have a “conversation” about it with your favorite news presenter.

Although it sounds like science fiction, such a day may be fairly close at hand. That’s the contention of Trushar Barotwho has been a participant of the Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab in Massachusetts. He believes voice-user interface devices that utilize artificial intelligence (AI) could herald the next revolution in the news industry.

Voice rules 

Of course, humans are already talking to, and hearing back from, their computers and smartphones. For example, by May 2016, about one of every five search inquiries on Android devices started happening through voice rather than typing, according to digital industry expert Mary Meeker. That percentage is growing, with younger generations, in particular, being quite comfortable with the concept of talking to machines. Voice-user interface—where people interact with increasingly intelligent computers in the cloud—may become the third wave of technology, following the point-and-click of personal computers and touch interface of smartphones.

“It’s important for the news industry and for all of us to understand how significant this technology is,” says Barot. “Artificial intelligence and machine learning, more generally, are the biggest tech revolution that’s going to occur in the next two decades. The world is going to look very different in terms of how we interact with technology.”

Speaking up 

Millions of people already have devices —sometimes called “smart speakers”—that are about the size of a soup can, plug in to the wall and are always on. The speakers, which respond to voice commands and/or programmed instructions, are sold by tech titans and include Amazon Echo, Google Home, Microsoft’s Harman Kardon Invoke and Apple’s HomePod. Their numbers are growing rapidly—one industry source estimates that Amazon shipped more than 10 million of its Echo line of smart speakers in 2017.

Let’s say you are a farmer in rural India and you just bought your first cheap smartphone. If you switch on your phone and it asks you, in your own dialect, what you want to know—that would be revolutionary.

The opportunities for the news industry to capitalize on this third wave of technology are enormous, says Barot. For example, The Washington Post, owned by Amazon’s chief executive officer Jeff Bezos, is developing the ability for Amazon Echo to alert users to breaking news by chiming or flashing. Other news organizations are creating information packages tailored to what users might be doing—10 minutes of “breakfast news” as they’re getting ready for the day ahead, or personalized updates that could be delivered as they’re about to go to bed.

“We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of all the additional data that artificial intelligence can deliver to us based on what our interests are, how we’re feeling and what’s going on in our lives,” says Barot. “Devices of the future will be so sensitive to the user’s tone of voice that they will be able to return different responses inferred from that tone—whether you’re angry, happy, scared or something else. Research also shows that people are developing quite strong relationships with these devices—they relate to them in kind of the same way as with their pets.”

Finding answers 

Computers can now realistically synthesize a voice based on hearing it for only a short period of time. Thus, devices using artificial intelligence will be able to formulate and deliver “answers” if users ask their favorite news personalities about what’s going on, says Barot.

“There are opportunities for all kinds of new interactions,” he says. “An AI entity can not only be responsive to your requests, but also be proactive in terms of getting you to engage in ways you hadn’t thought of before. For example, your device might search for information it thinks would be interesting to you or deliver information based on where you are physically. They could become the first and last interaction you have every day.”

As with other areas of technology, smart speakers raise challenges we didn’t have to think about before. Do we want to hear all types of breaking news if children are in the room? As our devices “get to know us,” what happens to the personal information they acquire and store in the cloud? News organizations, digital companies, governments and users themselves will have to decide how to deal with these challenges, notes Barot.

Reaching the next billion

Although voice-user interface and artificial intelligence are currently aimed primarily at those in developed countries, Barot notes that tech companies are very excited about reaching what they call “the next billion”—people in developing countries who cannot now easily access the Internet. The technologies could change that rapidly and radically, he believes.

Let’s say you are a farmer in rural India and you just bought your first cheap smartphone,” he says. “If you switch on your phone and it asks you, in your own dialect, what you want to know—that would be revolutionary. You don’t have to know about passwords or touch screens or websites—the barriers to access are gone, and you can ask about crop prices or weather or anything else that interests you.

Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.