01 April 2010 ~ 1 Comment

Have we been replaced? ABC “hires” robot reporters

When I saw this I just had to laugh.  A $7.8 million dollar investment!! What do you think?


ABC News has purchased 28 “Madcat” robotic photographic units from BBN Technologies, a division of Raytheon, for an estimated $7.84 million.

Some of the units will initially be assigned to European-based “one-man-band” news correspondents, and the remainder will be kept stateside for further research and development.

At least four of the units will be sent to the depleted Los Angeles news bureau. Two more are headed to San Francisco, one each to Seattle and Phoenix.

The Madcat android, also known as the “smart cam,” was unveiled two years ago at the Munich Video Technology Conference. In its early form, the unit was envisioned as a replacement for “a news photographer shooting from a tripod.” But the technology has rapidly advanced and the latest Madcat Model RD10 is not only self-propelled but also has, according to BBN Technologies, “problem solving smarts.”

It has “visual intelligence,” which a company spokesperson describes as “the ability to take in its surroundings, interpret them, and learn concepts that apply to them.” Researchers are hoping to add perceptual and cognitive underpinnings to the Madcat software, which will eventually allow it to “create and tell stories.”

The unit shoots with an integrated Sony BRC-H700 1/3-Inch 3-CCD HDTV communications camera, a 12x optical zoom, and an optical image stabilizer. It can “learn” to frame standard shots for standups, interviews, and media conferences. It can also, according to Robotic Photography Magazine, shoot action video on voice command or by keying to a particular subject. The robotic unit can extend the camera head up to eight feet vertically. The unit runs on a rechargeable lithium battery pack and can remain operational for up to 12 hours on a single charge.

Media experts worry that news photographers will soon be rendered extinct. “It will essentially create one-and-a-half-man bands,” says Ray Darpa, union steward for IBEW Local 472. “This thing is a tripod, a camera, and a cameraman all rolled into one.” Darpa believes ABC has done extensive testing with the units overseas. He says a feasibility study, commissioned in Oct. 2009, confirmed the budgetary advantages of robotics in news gathering. “We’ll fight its integration into the workplace,” he promised. “But it may be a losing battle.”

ABC declined to confirm the purchase of the robotic photographic units, which reportedly sell for $280,000 each. “We are always open to new ideas and more efficient ways to deliver the news,” said ABC spokesperson Yolanda Sarkozy. Insiders believe the network made its decision to slash 25% of its news division staff to make way for the new technology. The low initial cost, combined with proven reliability and ever-evolving technological improvements, makes the Madcat android especially attractive to local TV stations.

“I think we’ll see them in most large-to-midsize markets by the end of the year,” predicted Darrell Brown, chairman of the ABC Television Affiliates Association. “They are extremely cost-effective, and their ‘work ethic’ is not affected by emotion, fatigue, or bias.”

BBN Technologies is also experimenting with a Robust Automatic Translation of Speech program, which the company says will streamline the translation process and “expand the unit’s foreign operational viability.” In addition to English, Spanish, French, and German, the Madcats will soon be able to understand and react to Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Dari, and Urdu with 98% accuracy.

* Happy April’s fool day 🙂

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