How the Quartz Bot Studio is preparing for the next era of media

journalism / Article

November 29, 2016 by Zach Seward

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Photo by Mark Craemer.

Zach Seward is senior vice president of product and executive editor at Quartz. Today Knight Foundation is announcing $240,000 in support for the Quartz Bot Studio to better engage and inform the public, and to advance understanding of new technologies in journalism. 

The shift from desktop to mobile computing over the past decade had dramatic effects on how people consume media. But that’s nothing compared to what comes next.

Now we are seeing forms of media that are truly made for people’s smartphones, not just adapted from the web or television or print. And not just on phones: Media have spread to an array of internet-connected devices for the home, car and other personal spaces. These are taking the form of messaging applications, voice interfaces, smart gadgets and other technologies that personalize your experience based on context. Rather than mobile-first, the buzzword of the era just passed, the next big media platforms are more aptly described as mobile-native.

Some of these platforms are already huge: messaging apps such as Slack, Skype, WeChat, Kik, and Facebook Messenger; and digital assistants such as Alexa, Siri, Cortana and Google Assistant. Others are still nascent but likely to rise in popularity over the next several years.

At the heart of this new era are two broad fields: bots and artificial intelligence. Bots are software you can talk to. They fit neatly into these new media platforms because, without a graphical interface to click or tap on, the only way to control them is often through conversation. And chatting with a bot—even in a stilted fashion, as is often the case—requires a level of smarts that has come to be known as AI. That includes more specific fields such as natural language processing (to understand human input), machine learning (to personalize based on user behavior), and information processing (to glean insights from large data sets).

Anyone intending to create media in this environment needs to understand all of these areas. That’s why we’re launching the Quartz Bot Studio, with the support of Knight Foundation. The studio will experiment with applications of bots, AI and related technologies for journalism on new platforms. And we’ll share what we learn with everyone.

The studio builds on work we have been doing this year at Quartz. Our app, released for iOS in February and Android very soon, presents the news in a conversational interface, as though the user is texting with Quartz. We have also built bots to improve the experience of attending our events, display ambient information in our office, and automate many of our internal systems.

There is much more to do. With Knight’s support, we intend to build automated tools for journalists and applications for voice and messaging interfaces. We’ll experiment with how various forms of AI, increasingly available through services from major technology companies, can augment those experiences. And we’ll try to improve the tricky work of reporting and writing for these new kinds of interfaces.

To help others learn from these experiments, we’ll be public about what we’re working on and what we’re learning. We’ll open-source the code we produce with Knight’s support and find the best ways to publicize the studio’s work on the internet and in person. If you’re interested in collaborating with the Quartz Bot Studio, please reach out to us at [email protected]. There are always humans on the other side of that email address.

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