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Sports journalism 1: AI 0

This week’s topic: Artificial Intelligence.

Scientific developments always open up new possibilities for humankind, and one such area of progress is Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is basically about letting machines handle the jobs hitherto done by humans so that humans can have a lot of spare time that they can use looking for a job that will pay them for their every-day living.

AI is now the buzz all over the world as there is also a genuine fear that many jobs will soon vanish from the market. But before we get all alarmed, it should be made clear that not all jobs lend themselves for AI intervention.  For instance, if you happen to be the country’s Vice President you need not worry. There is no way AI can poach your job. There has to be some ‘work’ for AI to take away. There is none ever for the VP. As the present incumbent, with a disastrous fetish for acronyms, will say VP is about being AI (Absolutely Idle).

Scientists in this line say that only jobs that are predictable, repetitive or fall into a pattern are meant for automisation. Typical examples of that would be: Drawing up spread-sheets, weather reports, Prime Minister’s I-Day speech, Hrithik Roshan’s acting etc. You will soon have machines handling these jobs.

Car driving is another area where they say AI will play a major role. Driverless cars are the future, it is said. But in Chennai, which you should know is always ahead in matters of science, driverless share-autos are already a reality. Most of the share-autos are so crammed with passengers that the nominated driver mostly rides foot-board only.

But what about my profession, journalism, can AI make inroads into it? Well, to tell you a fact, AI has been tried out two years back itself by the news agency AP.  Recently I happened to read a report on a football match churned out using an AI-based computer program. I’ll be completely honest here, the report just didn’t make any sense to me at all. The fact that the report was in Spanish, a language I don’t understand, could be a reason for the same.

But, anyway, I am sceptical of AI-based programs being successful in sports reporting because it requires a lot of ‘quotes’. Sports reporters need to fill their ‘copies’ with ‘quotes’, else their reports will basically just contain scores and some desperate parenthised padding.

“India today defeated Sri Lanka, an island country situated off the South-east coast of Tamil Nadu on the Indian Ocean — the third largest ocean in the world —-  in the third Test held at Pallekele, in front of about 36 spectators, 35 of them possibly sleeping when the last wicket fell”.

As you can see, it becomes dreary and a reporter cannot hope to fill the vast space available on paper with such stuff. Ergo, the  need for ‘quotes’ from the players or the coach. But the problem is most of the quotes from cricket players are not terribly exciting because they are mostly PR-driven. That is, they will contain — follow me closely here — a lot of meaningless words. ‘It’s all about process’. ‘Retain our focus’. ‘Executing the ideas’. ‘Keep the momentum going’. ‘Expressing oneself on the field’. ‘Results will take care of themselves’. ‘Rub of the green’. ‘Doing the basics right’. ‘Step up the plate’. ‘The mantra is to keep it simple’. ‘Getting the rhythm back’.

Your modern cricketers will use this in any random order that comes to their mind at that precise moment: ‘We went out and executed our ideas. And we are happy that the results are taking care of themselves’. On another day, ‘we did the basics right and the rub of the green expressed itself on the field’. Or even, ‘we never got the momentum going and the plate was left unstepped. We need to focus our rhythm on mantra.’

No, I am not kidding. This is what your professional cricket players come up with on a daily basis, and as a sports reporter you are expected to fill your ‘copy’ with these gems. And this is where AI will find the going tough. How can any computer program, based as it is on logic, find anything rational in this drivel? I think it will immediately write its resignation report.

So amidst all the fears of AI taking over the world, sports journalism offers humanity a modicum of hope. But no need to thank the sports journalists, I think they are just doing their job of keeping it simple and doing the basics right.