"When people are fundamentally stuck in these small echo chambers, it can be hard for them to ask questions," Upstill pointed out. Those people can ask questions at any time, but let's face it -- we all know people who wouldn't go to the trouble of seeking out viewpoints different from their own, and Upstill believes that the "distance" between wanting to understand opposing mindsets and actually searching for them can be problematic. It's especially tricky on a smartphone, which Upstill referred to as "a great screen for one article." Google's News app, and Full Coverage more specifically, is meant to close that distance with just a few taps.
Google's embrace of artificial intelligence to help people make sense of the news comes also with a tacit admission that humans aren't ideal for this kind of work. As evidenced by the time Facebook employed humans to flesh out its trending topics, subjective biases -- or even the appearance of bias -- can influence how users receive or perceive the news. Upstill says Google relies on a variety of signals to ensure that there's no ideological slant to the way it ranks news (though just knowing that probably won't convince everyone.)
Humans also can't handle this kind of news curation at scale. That stands in stark contrast to Apple's take on its own news products -- the Cupertino company employs an editorial staff to curate news and create packages around them. Google has shied away from building up a workforce dedicated to managing the flow of news for its users because there's no way it could do that kind of work as efficiently as AI could.
"I can't sit down and within 30 seconds figure out that the North Korean detainees have been suddenly released in the US and that Donald Trump is tweeting about it and that there's a perspective coming in from the Washington Post," Upstill said. "I don't think we could hire enough people to do that just for the US, and this is a product we're launching in 127 countries."
It might seem odd that the future of news might be shaped by precisely zero humans, but reducing the need for human work is one of the big themes here at Google I/O 2018. People can do most things just fine, but machines can do some of those things more efficiently and with surprising levels of thoughtfulness. The human side of news -- the journalism, the reactions, the sharing -- will endure. Still, if we're going to let machines drive us around and make phone calls for us, why not let them try to make us more intellectually well-rounded, too?
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