My favourite source of news, apart from IBNLive.com of course, is Google News. A mere glimpse through the pages gives me a fair idea of what all important is happening around the world and also around where I live. According to Google there is no human intervention in deciding the selection and placement of the stories on Google News. "The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program," reads the disclaimer at the bottom of every page on Google News.
But are algorithms as smart as humans? Google News itself is an excellent example of the efficiency of computer programs to scan and publish snippets from relevant content from thousands of online sources around the world. This humongous effort would have otherwise required a huge investment in dedicated manpower. But then do computer programs have the discerning abilities of the human mind? The answer, still, is no.
Computers have beat humans chess and also in Jeopardy. But judgement is something that is still best left to the human mind. On Monday, HindustanTimes.com put up a tongue-in-cheek post titled 'Indian Mig 21 nominated for Nobel Peace Prize' by Gursimran Khamba (in all probability the same @gkhamba who first tweeted the idea a few days ago). "We would like to appreciate the role of the IAF Mig-21 which is the most prominent aircraft to reject the notion of war by deciding to crash in entirety before any conflict arises, thus saving thousands of innocent lives," the post quoted from a fictitious Nobel Foundation press release.
But Google News, run by millions of lines of code, doesn't yet distinguish between satire and news and gave the post prominent placement amongst other news items on its India home page. Many readers have it in them to be able distinguish between what is news and otherwise, but as experience tells me, lots do not.
While Google is working hard to improve upon its existing code to make the Google News experience more enriching. The Internet giant had recently launched a new design in India and UK and has also tied up with leading online publishers, including IBNLive.com, for more compelling news.
I am all for technology, but am also a firm believer in the ability of the human mind to comprehend and analyse in a way that computers are still not capable of. It is all right for the programs to go all the hard work, but a human is needed to extract some weeds and plant some flowers.
What Google News needs is an editor. Many will jump up in protest at the mere suggestion. Humans also bring along their prejudices. Humanlessness is what distinguishes Google News, from say Yahoo News. Humans add deterrence to the flow and thereby reduce the speed of news flow. But humans can add value in a way no machine or program can. If not an editor, maybe a curator. But I will still prefer an editor.
The HindustanTimes.com post cited above may not be a perfect example to push forward my belief, but it did give me the harbour to anchor my thoughts. Curiously, they took off the post from their website, but a cached version is still available via Microsoft's Bing.
Search engines, aggregation services and the emerging social media services are still far from perfect. We as content creators are always hungry for their attention and follow their dictates to generate more traffic that in turn makes them appear more efficient. This is a symbiotic relationship. But this arrangement sometimes leaves the consumers with a blurred vision. The above example is not news but was passed off as news. So was an IBNLive April Fool joke on how India would have reached the Cricket World Cup finals even if they lost to Pakistan in the semis. The peril of algorithms.
It is unlikely Google will ever hire an editor add or remove content to Google News. If what I know of Google is right, they will happily bring in 10 more programmers on their rolls than let a journalist in. At best they will suggest yet another meta tag to add to our page headers to let their programs distinguish between news and satire.
With its roots in search, Google does not seem to be much concerned about credibility. That responsibility lies with the content creator. Their purpose is only to act as a medium to make the user reach his intended destination. But the fact is that many users are not discriminating and are unable to comprehend the subtleties of the economies of the Internet. There are many (including a number of media professionals) who still type in the URL into Google's search box and not the Web browser's address bar. Spare a thought for them.