Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Rise of the Machine. Let the Machines make the News - how humans keep failing

Terminator 3 Rise of the Machine - Columbia Tri Star 2003

At the point that everyone understands the narrative, how to get their point across re; Newsnight, how to even manipulate the events and plots as observed through programmes such as Big Brother, there cease to be, what could be described as "truthful events", just self-mediated narratives, David Dunkley Gyimah asks is it time to hand over the media to the Machines.

By lending John Smith $250,000, Drew, an analyst, knew Smith at some point would default. 

Drew in turn through a labyrinthine  transaction would bet against a particular bank writing off that debt, and also posting a downturn in their balance sheet. $250,000 was small enough to go unnoticed but big enough for him with 8 such clients to make his small fortune.

That was the story?  This is my fictional account of an event that would become cataclysmic and spiral into truism, so stay with me.

Writing in Business Week Peter Coy investigates how subprime lenders hid an impending crash from vigilant overseers. It goes back to 2004 he adds, with this from Michael Youngblood an Asset Manager who's talking about how subprime went unnoticed for so long:
'The change was little-noticed, because the lenders actively denied it. "To my disappointment as a long-time analyst," says Youngblood, the major lenders insisted that they had not lowered their credit standards long after they had begun to do so".
Just over a week ago a London city trader Alessio Rastani caused widespread shock in the industry when he told the BBC this story that:
"Traders 'don't really care that much' about the prospect of an economic collapse... He said: 'Personally I've been dreaming of this moment for three years. I have a confession, which is I go to bed every night, I dream of another recession'".
Lots of narratives, stories, but at no time in the intervening years  of subprime and even before then have we heard such a story, which we deem to be truthful.

We all tell stories, some believed to be more important than others. The feature story sates our craving for the "enjoyable" story. Its value may be distant, so it impacts in a different way. The documentary for the untold, now to-be-told and the news story plays to a more immediate impact. Its value has a greater currency.

But there's a problem - one in which social scientists have girdled their portfolios with standards and practice to combat: yellow journalism, ethical dilemmas, the hypodermic needle theory and the rest, so the question is:
  1. How inadequate is the media at large, at this time, in capturing and retelling truthful stories?
  2. Should we hand over the retelling of stories to seek truth to the machines?

The first point must be explained a bit further. This doesn't mean not professional or poor at telling the truth, but it is increasingly finding it difficult to find a mechanism to extract, relay truth for the narrative, within its existing methodology.

And as such the story telling and narrative have become a currency debased. Just tell any story, the story that we expect, our narative - who cares?  Publish.

Psychologist Julian Jaynes using one of the earliest artefacts in storytelling Iliad posited the idea that
humans circa 500BC were different mentally to today's lot. They lacked consciousness, so obeyed without questioning their gods.

Consciousness, and the period of enlightenment altered this. Deity and religion were challenged.

Two questions arise now. Has our consciousness in this day and age evolved sufficiently from the aforementioned period to make the right decisions. Yes! Secondly, have we consciously become enslaved to new gods within the media? We hold that what we hear in the news is unquestioningly true.

And if the media doesn't say it, we can be certain it's either not important or its not happened, or did and has been resolved. So the famines in East Africa, there are none any more.

There are two issues here; getting to a story, and its truth, and how that story is relayed truthfully.

Poisoned Media Tree
The story at the top shows how fruit from the poisoned tree perpetuates, with each media organ largely retelling or not a flawed narrative, so the not telling of the truth in subprime, the media not telling that story,  becomes a tsunami later with unimaginable consequences.

You could apply this to everything that emerges from the media. After all the media is human and thus responds to existentialist qualities of being human e.g fear, emotions, consciousness.

It attempts to address qualities of truth and getting to the story by the use of a plethora of  standards refined over the years.  But that still hasn't prevented it from getting it woefully wrong.

And if you thought subprime an exception,  consider The Guardian's Paul Lewis on how he believes the reporting of the recent London Riots was woefully inadequate, despite its back to back coverage.  He might be a lone voice, but I believe we should pay attention.

The end question I consider then is do we need machines to make our news? Could the machines do a better job?

Of course this begs the question of what I mean by machines? Something non-sentinel that is not prone to emotions and can get to the truth and eschew congnitive dissonance.

To an extent we already do that in cameras recording, television's relaying pictures and the rest. Before the camera we had no way of retrieving for analysis what someone said. We took our notes as gospel at the time, but even with the camera as Roland Barthes notes the image does not project a truth.

Through the lens of a camera the story is still mediated by human agents. But as I write this and blogged months ago, manufactures are looking to address this.

The rise of the machine here is a  camera with secondary sensors. One that records data e.g. pupil dilation, skin temperature, voice register etc. that when added to the narrative can bring more valuable information to the veracity of the subject's narrative - though again that data is likely to be interpreted by humans.

The telling and interpreting of stories is seemingly the stuff of Sci-fi. In Kubrick's 2001 HAL the space ship's computer shows a fallability, if not seemingly displaying emotion to getting to the truth.

In a film shown by former Edingburgh Film Festival Director Mark Cousins, a South East Asian reporter investigating a highly secretive story buried from WWII is seen on camera beating the truth out of his interviewee. When the secret is revealed he backs off; Canabilism amongst the troops.  In A Few Good Men (1992), the point is dramatised: You can't handle the truth!

I'm not suggesting violence to extract the story, the truth - for torture and the ethical question of getting the the truth of the story by justifying the means is contestable, and clearly wrong according to the former head of Britian' Intelligence Service Eliza Manningham-Buller 

Let the Machines make news may seem far fetched, until you consider Robert Harris' research for his new book Fear Index about how Super Computers are preying on our human fear to make money. He writes in the Mail:
"In the 20 minutes I was watching, the machine made a profit of $1.5 million. This hedge fund has made a return for its investors of more than 80 per cent in the past three years, at a time when most of us have seen the value of our pensions and tracker-funds go down in a falling market".
Harris' point is the machines are the one's running the economy, with humans merely in attendant similar to fly-by-wire piloting. And if the narrative resides in the few who entrust machines to make money, surely to meet their match it's as a good reason also to have machines decipher and tell the news.

It's like the equivalent of Kasparov playing Deep Blue - even then when it was a crusty computer.

How we use Machines might be the lesser connudrum than the economic and technological debate of its consequences. But it's worth consideration, unless that is....

David Dunkley Gyimah is a PhD Candidate at SMARTlab, University College Dublin. A former BBC and Channel 4 News freelance producer and winner of a number of international journalism awards and would be interested in expanding on this at talks, seminars and conferences.

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