The year we embrace the robots — and ourselves

Sometimes it feels like my worlds are at war. I spend part of my week teaching classes at the University of Southern California’s USC Annenberg School of Journalism and the other part at the Viterbi Startup Garage, a tech startup incubator. My Twitter feed, or what’s left of it, is a dizzying mishmash of Media Twitter, Startup Twitter, and Editor Twitter. Investors ask me why I haven’t let machines do the work of humans for my company, Stylebot. Journalists come to me with the opposite concern.

If you’ve spent time in the past couple of weeks playing with or reading about ChatGPT, you might feel as though, once again, a new era is dawning on the media industry that we’re not prepared for. My Twitter feed and group chats have been filled with “funny because it’s true” comments about how AI can make some newsroom jobs obsolete.

Because of my work on Stylebot, which uses machine learning to enhance the experience of using a style guide written by people at USC Annenberg, I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about what humans are good at and what machines can offer us. The hands-on demonstration of what’s possible with AI offers journalists an opportunity in 2023 to take the road less traveled when it comes to disruptive innovation in our industry: embrace it, and do so without fear that the product you currently offer will be worse because of it.

Think about what people have that machines don’t: intuition, adaptability, creativity, and critical thinking, to name a few. Then consider how those overlap with the traits a good journalist needs. I spend a lot of time in the classes I teach at USC Annenberg talking about what’s fundamental to journalism and what’s not. So many of our practices and habits are simply those: practices and habits. They are not what defines the profession or what makes it useful to the public.

It’s easy to look at the power and scale of technology and think that mere mortals can’t compete. But if we adopt a posture of collaboration and lean into both what machines can do and what humans excel at, it will allow journalists to use their human abilities to greater potential. Don’t underestimate the power you have if you refocus your time and mental energy.

I am able to live in each of my two worlds because I see the good in both: the potential of technology to improve our lives and the value and power of journalism. While I can be frustrated by both at times, I never doubt that they are stronger as allies than as enemies.

Laura E. Davis is an associate professor of professional practice at the University of Southern California.

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