AI Behind the Scenes Features

How OpenAI is changing the way we process information

“Is AI another Gutenberg moment for journalism?” Jill Abramson asked. 

The Gutenberg printing press was a significant turning point in the history of journalism. Before Gutenberg, only wealthy people could afford to read due to the complicated and costly printing process. The new and affordable printing technique marked increased accessibility to reading and knowledge for the public. 

As technology develops and we step further into the era of artificial intelligence, the way we process and consume information has been affected, in ways similar to the impacts of Gutenberg. That raises some big questions: How will AI impact our democracy? How will AI reshape the media? Will journalists lose their jobs? Who can afford to use it?

The Burnes Center for Social Change at Northeastern University, which aims to design and implement practical solutions for society’s most complicated issues, hosted a lecture titled “AI and the Media” on Jan. 25, 2024. Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times and current journalism professor at Northeastern, and Ethan Zuckerman, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and director of the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure, discussed how OpenAI will change the future journalism and social media. The lecture is part of a series called “Rebooting Democracy in the Age of AI.”

Zuckerman believes the biggest problem that we are facing — but haven’t discussed as much — is the large amount of unreliable and unusable content that OpenAI generates. 

“There’s actually been some good scholarly studies done recently suggesting that Google is less useful than it used to be. Its quality actually has started falling,” Zuckerman said. “It’s because AI-generated spam is out there that even Google is having difficulty keeping up with.” 

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Therefore, the big challenge for journalists is to find ways to use machine learning to filter this content out and provide a healthy environment where people can access accurate information. 

OpenAI also impacts the agenda-setting process. Today, part of the decision-making power in newsrooms has been transferred from editors to the algorithm. Zuckerman took the example of selecting certain content to publish, such as letters to the editor.

“It used to be the editor deciding which [of] those letters would be edited,” he said. “Now, it’s some combination of algorithms and the public deciding we’re going to pay attention to this particular response.”

The new AI ecosystem has pros and cons.

“It’s a much more interactive system, but it’s a much more chaotic system.”

Ethan Zuckerman, Intiative for Digital Public Infrastructure at University of Massachusetts at Amherst

For instance, he said, more people now ask Siri for today’s news instead of going to news sites to read because the plethora of information can be overwhelming, and readers do not want to get lost in the information. Instead, asking Siri for stories is an easy and quick way to obtain information.

But in this way, readers are not able to check whether the information is accurate or credited to the people who did the reporting, Zuckerman said. 

Besides the new process of getting and delivering news, Zuckerman also believes social media will get smaller — not smaller in influence but will host more small communities with different purposes — in the age of AI. This means that people with the same interests or goals will gather together online and create smaller but closer communities on social media. 

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As an example, he talked about an online running club he belonged to. To join, group members have to agree to several rules, including don’t body shame or don’t talk about weight loss. He believes that many online communities like that will continue to emerge, and social media will shift from big public platforms like X, formerly Twitter, to small-scale spaces. 

“We are working on tools that let users subscribe to a whole bunch of different communities and control how they see [information online],” Zuckerman said.

Heather Wang

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