The potential for advanced interactions between computers and human language is changing the future of news, Northwestern University Professor Lawrence Birnbaum said during a lecture at the University’s Qatar campus.

Birnbaum, a McCormick School of Engineering faculty member, is an expert at conveying data in terms that can be easily grasped and used in developing informative stories. 

At NU-Q, he discussed the ongoing work of advancing computer-generated stories in the context of news coverage and education. Birnbaum predicted that more routine functions in news production, such as processing information into news copy and selecting article templates, will become automized. The role of journalists, he said, will move from general reporting tasks to crafting custom-made content for specific audiences and topics. 

He also warned that “robo-journalism” could amplify biases. With search engines becoming more familiar with user preferences, individuals will be shown highly selective results based on their distinct interests, political views, and demographics, making “the circle of information and products available narrower and narrower.” Although effects of these systems can be seen today, the results will be felt more distinctly as technology develops. 

Another challenge to the future of journalism, Birnbaum said, is combating the effects of fake news. “The deeper problem with fake news is not just that it's false, but that it is targeted. They’re really marketing messages created to activate specific classes of people,” Birnbaum said.

Birnbaum has authored or coauthored more than 80 articles on the topics of natural language processing, case-based reasoning, machine learning, human-computer interaction, educational software, and computer vision. His visit to the campus was part of a Qatar Computing Research Institute event.