In a speech Silha gave in Paris on November 14, 1968 at an international conference for newspaper publishers, Otto A. Silha, publisher of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune newspapers, outlined a very practical application that is being used today: the robot editor.

Robot editor

How the robot editor works

“The Research Center has developed a program so that the computer reads a story, places a numerical value upon each word in the story and through mathematical formulas determine what is most important in the story and then regenerates the story into the length that it was instructed to do,” Silha said in the speech that would make an algorithmic trader proud. “This technique uses the computer to shorten a story, literally without human intervention. “

Assigning mathematical values to words and shortening an article based on the word’s importance is an arduous task, as any human copy editor might confirm.  But can a computer handle a normally subjective task that might involve a wider context?  The jury is still out, but back in 1968 Silha anticipated the backlash among copy editors.

Human editors may not care for robot editor

“We recognize that most editors will not care for computer editing,” he wrote. “We feel, however, that the ANPAT program has many practical applications in the future. As soon as computer display devices become practical, a newspaper editor will be able to modify the computer-shortened story to add the individual editor’s touch.”

Then Silha’s prophecy, as it might be described, comes to life when he talks about the newswires using the technology in question.

“This will greatly ease the load of the wire editors,” he wrote of the practice just now being implemented by the Associated Press. “Some newspaper editor may be satisfied with just the 100 word abstract of the story. If he wants 500 words, he can ask the wire service for the longer version, or even 1,000 if that is the full length available. You can imagine the saving in transmission and story editing time which this could make happen.”

For his part, Silha was on the money.  As a recent report notes, the Associated Press recently requested all reporters to tighten up stories, limiting them to 300-500 words or 500-700 for stories deemed incredibly important.

They’re also relying on computerized robots to make this happen.