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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Cosmic Relevance: Robot Domination

Until last week, I had never felt threatened by technology. It all changed when I stumbled upon a WIRED magazine article, titled “Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story than a Human Reporter?”

I really hoped the answer was no, but the report made a convincing case for yes. The article investigated Narrative Science, a company founded to create programs that can act as journalists.

According to Kristian Hammond, the CEO and co-creator, “computers mine vast troves of data to produce ultracheap [sic], totally readable accounts of events, trends, and developments that no journalist is currently covering.” Not only can the algorithm do its own research, but clients also can customize the writing style. And errors are reportedly rare, as it has built-in error checking.

The program is already wildly successful. Big companies like Forbes have been using the service to give company analysis and financial reports. When asked what percentage of news articles computers will write in 15 years, Hammond replied, “More than 90 percent.” And asked further about the future of the company, Hammond claimed, “In 20 years, there will be no area in which Narrative Science doesn’t write stories.”

As a writer, I never thought a machine could do my job. Yet here I was, a replaceable human, paranoid of androids.

So I asked myself, do we control technology or does technology dominate us? Is coexistence possible?

To find an answer, I asked some of my CoHo co-workers for their thoughts. How do you coexist with technology?

Right off the bat, a student responded, “I start every day with technology; it’s what gets me up in the morning.” Other students mirrored this answer, stating that many machines are part of their daily routine, including transportation, communication and work. So our lives and our lifestyle depend on these advancements.

But do we feel like we are slaves to machines? I had to ask the follow-up question, what does technology do for you? Another student answered, “It empowers.” With an iPhone, anyone can become an instant navigator, researcher, long-distance caller, photographer, DJ … and the list goes on.

The consensus seemed to be that students thought of technology as a positive addition to their lives. But still, I was upset at the new invention of the robot author. It seems that progress may have cheated me out of a career. Jealous, I asked my fellow students one last question: what robot invention would you like to see in 50 years?

The answers were surprisingly mixed.

Half the students wished for Jetson family ideas, like “robot maids,” “hover devices” and “Yoda shit”.

However, the other half seemed very skeptical of new innovations. One student scoffed, “my first answer is none,” as “it’s better to do things yourself.” Although we obviously depend on many devices each day, this student thought we should revert to old school labor. Another student asked, “Have you seen Wall-E?” referring to the disastrous effects of letting technology do our work.
It seems that technology and progress both aid and hinder our lives. For example, phones help us connect to others. But if you walk around campus, try to spot the amount of students not plugged into their headphones and facing down into their screens.

Above all, technology is a tool. It allows humans to do what we could not do alone. I cannot replace somebody’s heart valve nor scan somebody for cancer.

Progress doesn’t seem like it will stop anytime soon. Since harnessing the power of fire, humans have been using technology to better our species. So it is up to us be mindful of how we are using it to keep it that way.

If you want to welcome the coming of our robot overlords with DANIEL HERMAN, he can be contacted at dsherman@ucdavis.edu

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