Last week it was Sports Illustrated that was hit by a scandal when it was revealed some of its content had been written by computers, not people. The fallout was severe.
My First Big Job
When I graduated from high school, my first task was to find a job that hopefully would last for a year and tide me over until I could start in Radio and TV Arts at NAIT the following September.
Before I walked out of high school for the last time, I had been hired by a company called Provincial News. It distributed magazines and pocketbooks to stores and other retail outlets throughout Edmonton. It actually had a far wider reach, because it did business from Red Deer north into the Northwest Territories.
I started by taking new magazines to stores in Edmonton and then picking up the old ones that hadn’t sold so the store got a credit. It was a good job that I enjoyed. I moved up at the company and even when I went to NAIT, returned to work over the summer and Christmas holidays.
The best part of the job was what I delivered – the magazines. At the time, the biggest selling monthly titles were Playboy, Penthouse, Cosmopolitan, Better Homes and Gardens and Family Circle.
Once or twice a week, I delivered weeklies that included Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated, which eventually became known as SI. It had been my favourite magazine for years. I got a subscription to it when I was about 14. The best day of the week was always when my copy of Sports Illustrated arrived in the mail.
There I was a few years later taking the magazine into stores and many a lunch hour was spent pouring through the latest copy of Sports Illustrated. The writing and photography were phenomenal.
Remember, this was back in the 1970’s when far fewer events were on TV and we were years away from the internet. Sometimes Sports illustrated was the only place to find details on a recent golf tournament, or big heavyweight fight.
Years later, when I was in the television course at NAIT, I remember cutting photos out of Sports Illustrated to use as background graphics on the air. Not legal, but effective.
Deep Fakes Invade SI
Like so many others in traditional media, magazines have taken it on the chin in the years since.
Sports Illustrated is one of the few big sellers from the 70’s that still exists. Many have simply faded away, victims of changes brought about by the internet and social media. Magazines like Playboy and Penthouse, which used to sell millions of copies a month, went out of business when people could get what they were offering, and a lot more, on the internet for free.
SI has had a similar problem. With the amount of sports on live TV, pre and post-event analysis and coverage on the internet and social media, reading about a game or event a week and a half later now seems pretty lame.
Less advertising and fewer subscribers have left SI a shadow of its former self.
Last week a controversy erupted after it was revealed an advertising section in SI last summer used computer generated product reviews, supposedly written by real people. The “writers” though were fake and so were their photos. AI had written the reviews and produced the photos. To make matters worse, there was an attempt to cover it up.
The AI-generated material wasn’t in a sports article. It was in a section that basically was advertising. The damage was done though. The share price of SI’s parent company dropped by 27% the next day.
AI Journalism is Here to Stay
It’s clear to me the technology that drives artificially generated editorial content like this works far better than the current public acceptance of it. In other words, in many cases, the technology is fine, but the public isn’t ready for machines to write stories for us to read.
It’s already happening though. I’m in a weekly head-to-head fantasy football draft and after each week Yahoo does a computer generated story breaking down each match-up. It’s incredible. It’s able to pick out key performances and trends to explain why one team won or lost. It comes complete with charts and graphs.
This post game analysis is something AI is very good at already. That’s because it has fed millions of games into the system and it’s easily able to pick out performances that make a difference, like a player scoring three touchdowns in football or a goalie getting a shutout in hockey.
What AI isn’t good at yet is writing content about subjects it doesn’t have a massive database of information on, perceiving human emotion and dealing with unexpected changes in a pattern. It will come.
It’s already writing reviews of high school football games in the US. As the dollars get increasingly tighter at media outlets, AI will be looked upon as a way to produce content. It’s not the best way, but real reporters cost money, something many media outlets don’t have much of these days.
If you think the controversy over these fake product reviews was bad, just wait until computers start generating fake bikini models for SI’s annual swimsuit edition.
Image credit: Sports Illustrated