Tech Talk: Local AI startup tries to automate journalism

Updated May 05, 2019

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The baseH co-founders put their money on AI to change the landscape of media industry.
The baseH co-founders put their money on AI to change the landscape of media industry.

Writing is usually a very time-consuming task and if you are working on a deadline, well God bless you then. And that’s the problem a Karachi-based startup wants to solve through artificial intelligence (AI) and reduce the entire process of writing into seconds.

Dante — a robot journalist as they call it — is an AI news writing bot that can prepare stories automatically, without the need for having anyone pen it down. Using a given sample of work, it styles the piece accordingly and can generate around a 400-word story on quantitative and business-related topics.

Let’s say you want a daily equities report. What the software will do is look for the closing, intraday highs and lows, volume among other things and prepare around an article out of it, in seconds.

Dante was the brainchild of Anis Uddin Sheikh, a developer-turned-anchor, who wrote the initial code and later joined forces with Khurram Schehzad, Faisal Sherjan, Imran Ahmed Khan – veterans in finance, media and design. Together, they founded baseH Technologies that has since developed, in addition to Dante, an AI financial analyst called AlpFin for research houses and brokerages as well as RoboSocial, an AI social media manager. Currently, the startup is being accelerated at the National Incubation Centre, Karachi.

Journalism is more than just writing though. Editorial policy, stance on major issues and sensitivity to the situation (understand this, broadcast people) are all integral to this profession. How would a computer code be able to do all of that? “We are focused on quantitative business stories so an organisation’s policy line is not as relevant. But the clients can list their objective preference sets on how they want certain things and we can factor those in,” says Sheikh, the Chief Executive Officer of baseH.

“We have also incorporated tone analysis, like using neutral or aggressive language, depending on the clients’ and their policy or can customise the story for kids and adults,” adds Chief Strategy Officer Schehzad.

However, in an age where who breaks the story first is slowly ceasing to matter compared who best reports it, can AI really hold up to the job? After all who cares if a certain website put budget figures up 3 hours before the rest? Right? Not exactly. “There is news where timing is of the essence, such as in sports where the updates have to be in real time and that’s where our solution can really speed up the processes,” says Sheikh.

But isn’t ‘bot’ journalist too advanced a technology for Pakistani media where even the industry giants haven’t been able to successfully monetise through digital channels and introduce a paywall as yet? “We are actually more keen on tapping on the international market where the appetite for tech is obviously much higher and so is the affordability,” Sheikh says. But that doesn’t mean their eyes are off the local industry. “We are already in talks with some of the media houses here and are expected to soon have them on board,” claims Schehzad.

And to better cash in on the Pakistani market, they are working on developing Urdu content as well. “Just last week, we managed to generate two lines in Urdu and will be further improving it, which could be a game changer,” Sheikh claims.

Within the Natural Language Generation technology, baseH isn’t the only player in the field. Narrative Science — a US startup with some $43 million in funding — has come up with Quill Engage which turns Google Analytics data into written narratives while its beta product Lexio turns business data into plain English stories. Similarly, Wordsmith from Automated Insights — another US-based company — has a similar offering and already has The Associated Press on board, among other clients.

On the other hand, some media conglomerates have gone for in-house tech, such as The Washington Post’s Heliograf and Lynx Insights from Reuters. How does then a Pakistani startup compete with its better-funded rivals?

“What makes us different from The Post and other publications is that their solutions are meant to be used in-house while we want to commercialise this technology,” says Sheikh. “As for third-party vendors, the market is too underserved right now for us to be threatened by one or two players. In fact, they’d help us open it more,” Schehzad believes.

The business model is quite similar to other tech B2B companies: for Dante, they charge an initial implementation cost plus fee for a set of news item. Recently, baseH also raised an undisclosed seed round from Elahi Group of Companies at a claimed valuation of $4.1m.

Let’s just see how long these guys take to put me out of job. Any leads as to which industry to switch to?

The writer is member of staff:
m.mutaherkhan@gmail.com
Twitter: @MutaherKhan

Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2019