April 8, 2002: Robot News Is Here

Well, you knew it had to happen sooner or later. According to the Associated Press, some pointyheads at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have begun work on a robot reporter. Evidently, our lives aren’t fulfilled enough talking to recordings instead of live human beings whenever our power, telephone or cable goes haywire. Now, we are going to have some gadget running around gathering news for us.

The chief pointyhead on the project, Chris Csikszentmihalyi, is quoted as saying the intent in developing this mechanical news gatherer is to assist, not replace, human reporters. Yeah, right. That’s what the techno-geeks always say. Mark my words, they won’t be happy until some glass-eyed android kicks me out of this space so it can regale you with stories on Einstein’s theory about his relatives.

Mr. Csikszentmihalyi, who heads the Media Lab at MIT, says that the remote-controlled robots, loaded up with accelerometers, distance sensors and cameras, could zip up to the front lines in Afghanistan and gather news and then zip back home. I am certain that this effort will have the total support of the reporters there. Robots would keep them from getting shot at and allow them more time to sit around the bar at the Kandahar Hilton and complain about their expense accounts.

Far be it for a humble UGA graduate to criticize Mr. Whoozit and the gang at MIT, but they might want to consider one slight change in their design. Current plans call for the roving robot reporter to carry a flag with a peace symbol on its antenna, signifying its neutrality. I guess it has not occurred to the geniuses that some grunt private sitting armpit deep in a muddy trench will pull out his M16 and send this marvel of technology to robot heaven when it comes chugging past him waving its little peace flag.

Still, this may be an idea whose time has come. I suspect that newspaper editors would love roving robots in their newsrooms, and why not? They wouldn’t have to listen to reporters whine about deadlines and about having their stories edited. If one of the robots asked for a raise, the editor could stomp the sucker to pieces and pull a new one out of the box.

I must confess that I don’t know exactly how the roving robot reporter works but I’ve got to believe that if it can be made to operate in Afghanistan, it could work in other hostile environments – like the state Capitol. Of course, the rover would have to undergo a couple of modifications. If the gizmo wanted to interview Democrats, it would fly the new state flag. For Republicans, it would hoist up the old Stars and Bars banner. And if our esteemed public servants chose to ignore the little bugger’s questions, it would zap their fannies good and proper with its hidden laser gun.

The roving robot reporter would undoubtedly pose a serious problem for journalism schools around the nation. Professors would have the challenge of making the machines lean to the left like the Woodward and Bernstein wannabes they crank out each year. And there is the additional concern of learning to change the robot’s oil and tune up its accelerometers. Can’t you just picture a journalism professor in white coveralls and safety glasses telling a student, “Mr. Figley, for the last time: That is not a spark plug. That is a crankshaft.”

Am I threatened by this new technological innovation? Darn right I am. The silly thing probably knows where to put all the commas and semicolons in a column without asking and can split an infinitive as easily as it can an atom. With a tinker here and a hot wire there, a robot could even be taught to write nice things about ice hockey, the world’s dumbest game, and natural gas deregulation, the world’s dumbest idea.

I don’t know about the rest of my colleagues but I choose to fight back. If the boys at MIT can stick their uninvited noses in the Fourth Estate and grace us with a robot reporter, why shouldn’t I reciprocate and construct a robot engineer? How hard could it be? All I need to do is slap on a couple of plastic pocket protectors and make sure it looks like a nerd.