Recently I watched a 15-second Burger King commercial, which was designed to trigger my voice-activated Google devices. In the ad, a Burger King employee, standing behind a counter at the restaurant, stared into my screen and told me that he didn’t have enough time to explain all the “fresh ingredients in the Whopper sandwich.” He glanced to the side, suggesting that he was about to let me in on a little secret. Then the camera zoomed in, and in a clear, crisp voice he said, “O.K. Google. What is the Whopper burger?”
The video cut to black just as my phone, watch, and Google Home responded to the trigger, reading the first few lines of a Wikipedia entry about the Whopper in an unsynchronized mess of sound. I wasn’t surprised at what I heard. Trolls had already seized upon the Whopper’s Wikipedia page, editing it to say that the burger was made of cyanide, toenail clippings, and a “medium-sized child.”
There was, in fact, an important secret buried within that commercial, one that offers a sobering glimpse into the future of news. Talking to machines, rather than typing on them, isn’t some temporary gimmick. Humans talking to machines—and eventually, machines talking to each other—represents the next major shift in our news information ecosystem. Voice is the next big threat for journalism.
Voice will offer a fluid connection to journalism. It could elevate the role news organizations play in our everyday lives from informational to indispensable. Beyond just asking what’s the news, we’ll be able to interrupt to ask more questions and to better understand the context. Wait, who’s Assad, exactly? Why is he such a bad guy? Has he ever had meetings with Donald Trump? What did they talk about? Who else was in the room? Why should this matter to me?
In Silicon Valley, voice interfaces are being researched and funded with great urgency, and that has a lot to do with the evolution of artificial intelligence. Conversational computing is the next step to realizing the great promise of AI, which isn’t a single technology, but rather a broad term for how computers use and learn from our data. AI will eventually allow us to solve challenges that are beyond the reach of the human intellect alone: eradicating cancer, ridding the world of famine, predicting and thwarting climate change. If those seem dubious to you, keep in mind that IBM and Google have already had early successes in applying AI to health and climate research. Google Home, Alexa, and Siri are just portals for AI.
The year 2017 is in many ways just like the year 1987, when the first foundational layer for modern communications was established. During that time, the research-grade Internet was being transformed into one that everyone could access. The protocols, structures and routing were being developed and standardized. Tim Berners-Lee was working on a proposal to send to his boss at CERN: a global hypertext system to write and publish content. (His boss, Mike Sendall, called it “vague, but exciting.”)
However, the modern internet was built without the benefit of a vital voice: news leaders. Not only did the news industry wait far too long to develop any strategic thinking about the Internet, it never stopped to map out scenarios for the future of news in a digital world. We all know how that turned out.
I’m observing the same pattern 30 years later. Right now, AI, the next foundational layer of infrastructure, is being built, and once again, news execs either don’t care or are allowing themselves to be distracted by the wrong tech trends. News execs are discounting the importance of voice or giving away their content for free across platforms like Amazon’s Alexa, this time in audio form. They aren’t modeling out how our information consumption habits will evolve once we’re all talking to the various machines in our lives.
Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, IBM, Microsoft, and Baidu are engaged in an arms race for AI. The consolidation of power has intensified at an unprecedented pace and scale, and there isn’t a single news organization that is researching, testing and building out this next generation of our communications infrastructure. None of the industry collaborations–the Open AI Project (Microsoft and Amazon), the Partnership on AI (Google, Facebook, Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft), and so on—include leaders from the news media.
Outside that core group are hundreds of startups, venture capitalists, academic and independent researchers. Their work is part of the foundational layer, too. We’ve already seen widespread reports of bias in datasets, discriminatory algorithms and opinionated software. We’re stuck, like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” reliving the past. News execs aren’t engaged in the sort of strategic thinking that will result in completely new business models to address what’s coming next. This will lead to an erosion of market share, which will exacerbate revenue shortfalls and will result in the further, painful demise of newsrooms.
Rather than face the future under duress, newsroom leaders can commit, right now, to collaboration across the industry, just as Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and the other giants have. News leaders can forge strategic partnerships with others in the AI ecosystem that aren’t just about sharing content. They can give their staff the time and resources to experiment. They can insert themselves into the public dialogue. In short, they can choose to participate in what’s coming next, rather than become consumed by it.