The Seattle Times has caused something of a stir in the world of journalism with a report that Microsoft News is aiming to use computers operating on “artificial intelligence” to replace dozens of people the newspaper described as “news production contractors.”
‘The roughly 50 employees – contracted through staffing agencies Aquent, IFG and MAQ Consulting – were notified Wednesday that their services would no longer be needed beyond June 30,” Geoff Baker reported Friday.
He went on to note that MSN, as it is called, is not exactly a news organization. It’s more a platform for the distribution of news gathered by others.
“Curating stories rather than actually generating them made it easier for MSN to increasingly rely on an automated editing system, though several of the terminated employees expressed skepticism it will work as well with fewer human beings to monitor the technology” is how Baker described the situation.
Skepticism is something most news organizations could use more of. It was once one of the big traits of the best journalists, and it is a big weakness in AI, which forms its thoughts based solely on patterns.
As Wired columnist Clive Thompson observed, “truly humanlike intelligence isn’t just pattern recognition. We need to start figuring out how to imbue AI with everyday common sense, the stuff of human smarts.”
If you ask that little tube-head we call Alexa the simple question of “why aren’t you more skeptical,” her answer is “Here is something I found on the web. According to HealthPages.com, ‘I couldn’t help it.'”
People can help it. They can learn to be skeptical. Some universities actually teach skepticism.
Journalism was once all about this. A key part of the job was sorting out who was telling some semblance of the truth – whether you agreed with it or not – and who was pedaling make-believe. Old-school journalists were proud of what were bluntly called their “bullshit detectors.”
And let’s be clear here that we’re talking about skepticism not cynicism – a curse placed on some of those same old-school journalists.
Late President Ronald Reagan succinctly summed skepticism when he stole the old Russian proverb “trust but verify” to describe U.S. policy toward nuclear disarmament agreements with the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
Skepticism, sadly, has been dying in the journalism business for years, and it now sometimes seems so far gone it’s hard to avoid wondering if AI journalism would make things any worse.
Case in point: “Over 10 agonizing days, this migrant worker walked and hitchhiked 1,250 miles home. India’s lockdown left him no choice.”
That is the headline on a CNN story published Sunday. It was pointed out by a cyclist who has pedaled the 1,000 miles of Alaska’s Iditarod Trail on a fatbike and knows how hard it is to cover such a distance.
“This story is embarrassing from CNN,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “The title says that they also hitchhiked, but the story says they walked most of the 1,250 mile journey in 10 days.”
Is this even humanly possible?
Well, let’s do what skeptics do and unpack the math. To go 1,250 miles in 10 days, you’d have to cover 125 miles per day. That’s the equivalent of almost five marathons per day for 10 straight days.
The story is very dramatic. This is how it starts:
“Rajesh Chouhan had covered 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) in five days. His legs were swollen and his blisters had burst. A piece of Styrofoam trash he’d found on the roadside was soaking up the pus seeping from his feet.
“But he didn’t stop walking. He couldn’t.
“The 26-year-old migrant worker was in the heart of India and only halfway home.”
Is there any way to read these three paragraphs other than to suggest Chouhan walked these first 620 miles?
Never mind that Styrofoam doesn’t “soak up” anything. Styrofoam is the stuff from which plastic coffee cups are made. They are nonabsorbent by design.
But back to the monster trek. What if one assumes, Chouhan walked the first 620 and then hitchhiked the last 630, is that possible?
Six-hundred-twenty miles in five days is 124 miles per day. If Chouhan could keep going 24 hours per day without a bathroom stop or a pause for food or water or sleep, he would need to average 5.2 mph to cover those 124 miles per day.
The only time the story makes mention of Chouhan running is when he flees police for two miles. The average human walking speed is under 3.5 mph. Some people can get up to 4.5 mph before being forced to break into a jog.
A Danish studying looking at exercise and mortality described “light joggers” as people running at a speed of about 5 mph, according to a Live Science summary of the research. For the runners reading this, 5.3 mph would be a pace of 11 minutes and 19 seconds per mile – good enough to translate into a marathon time of 4 hours, 56 minutes and 36 seconds.
If Chouhan were a well-trained runner, it would not be that hard to believe he did 124 miles in one day. The 24-record set by Yiannis Kouros in 1997 covered almost 188.6 miles, according to Ultrarunning magazine.
And plenty of well-trained runners have topped 150 miles in a day. The CNN story describes Chouhan as “a mason on a construction site,” and makes no mention of his doing any training.
Given that, 124 miles per day would be a stretch, and even more so 620 miles in six days
Kouros, who is a unique animal who trained extensively, did it in 1987 when he went 658.6 miles in six days. The only one who has come close since, however, is Joe Fejes, who went 606.2 in 2015, according to Ultrarunner.
So maybe CNN missed the real story?
“Indian mason fleeing pandemic proves to be world’s second-fastest runner over 600 miles!”
Or maybe the headline should read “Indian mason fleeing pandemic proves world’s fastest runner over 1,000 miles.”
It took Kouros 10 days, 10 hours and 30 minutes to cover that distance in 1998. No one has come close since. Even if Chouhan hitchhiked a ride for 250 miles, his 1,000-mile time would be faster.
This said, any reporter or editor with a sense of smell should have recognized this story doesn’t pass the simplest of sniff tests. Instead of sitting on the story, however, CNN editor Jenni Marsh, inflated it on Twitter by removing any reference to a possible assist from hitchhiking.
How could she not recognize how unbelievable the Tweet she was typing describing “the incredible, 1,250 mile walk home?”
It’s math again. Nobody can walk 1,250 miles in 10 days. Somebody might be able to run 1,250-miles in 10 days, but even that is stretching the limits of the possible. Such a run is only possible in the sense that it is not so far beyond what has been previously done to declare it absolutely, positively impossible.
But it would be best be described as unbelievable.
Many things in the Chouhan story could be described that way.
“As temperatures topped 40 degree Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), Chouhan walked about 5 miles (8 kilometers) an hour, taking a brief rest every two hours,” reporter Mohit Rao wrote. “He aimed to complete about 68 miles (110 kilometers) a day. ‘There was temptation to rest or to nap,’ he says. ‘But we were aware that it became more difficult to walk each time we sat down.'”
OK, first off, 68 miles per day doesn’t get Chouhan home in 10 days. It gets him about halfway home in 10 days. Sixty-eight miles per day is a more realistic distance to cover in 24 hours, but one would need to drink a considerable amount of water to avoid dehydration in the 104-degree heat.
The story makes no mention of where Chouhan or those with him were getting water. There clearly were no aid stations along the way to assist him. But there was at least one rest stop.
“By day three… they stopped on the side of National Highway 44, thinking they’d rest for an hour. They slept for eight, oblivious to the din of highway noises and blaring trucks,” the story says.
So there’s eight hours of walking time lost, which means Chouhan’s pace would need to be even faster than 5.3 mph to cover the 1,250 mile distance, but maybe 50 miles or so can be taken off for the hitchhiking.
“…Truckers were asking as much as 2,500 rupees ($33) per person to take them towards Uttar Pradesh,” the story says. ‘They told us that if the police caught them, they would have to pay big penalties. They didn’t want to take the risk without getting paid in return. We had no option but to walk,’ says Chouhan.
“But others were more charitable….A truck driver took pity on their blistered feet and offered them a lift. He was transporting rice across the border and they slept between the gunny sacks, as he drove them around the outskirts of Hyderabad.”
Hyderabad is the fourth largest city in India. Once Chouhan got around it, the story says, his group “had another stroke of luck — a villager took them to a school where NGOs were giving food and water to migrant workers.
“More than 300 migrants were eating when the police arrived.
“‘They started to abuse us,’ Chouhan says. ‘They said we were not following social distancing and we should sit 10 feet from each other. They attempted to disperse the crowd and told the organizers to stop giving out food.’
“But the migrants outnumbered the police. ‘We started to shout back. Some migrant workers even started to push the police, and the police retreated towards their jeep,’ he says. ‘We were angry. They (police) don’t help us at all — they don’t help people help us.'”
This could all be true. Maybe Chouhan was involved in an incident from which police “retreated.” It might make up for the “many” times he says he was “beaten” by police before he began his journey.
The difficult, Third-World living conditions described in the story are almost certainly true, because so many people in India live in such conditions. Many other details could also be true.
There may well be a Rajesh Chouhan in the Indian village of Srinagar Babaganj, and he may well have undertaken a difficult journey home from his job in Bengaluru in the south. And it is a given the COVID-19 pandemic has caused chaos in India as it has caused chaos around the globe.
More than 5,000 people have died there, and almost 94,000 are now ill with COVID-19, according to the latest numbers at Worldometer. The death rate of 4 per million pales compared to the death rate of 321 per million in the U.S., but COVID-19 is a tragedy everywhere. And there are no doubt unique aspects to the pandemic in India.
“There is no official data on deaths due to India’s lockdown, but a volunteer-driven database set up by a group of Indian academics has been tracking local media reports of fatalities as a consequence of the policy,” CNN reported.
“By May 24, it had recorded 667 deaths, of which 244 were migrant workers who died while walking home: either through starvation, exhaustion or in rail and road accidents.”
This is one of the few details in the story easily verified. There is such a website, and the reported death toll is now up to 742.
But as to the rest of the story, it would appear that either the reporter and CNN got played by Chouhan, or the reporter is playing CNN and the world.
If it’s the former, shame on Chouhan. If it’s the latter, shame on CNN, which should have caught the absurdity of the claims contained in the story.
Skepticism; it’s why people are supposed to trust news organizations to sort out some of the world’s crap for them. You’d think the network that once billed itself as “the most trusted name in news” would get it.