In a nightmare come true, Microsoft is letting go dozens of news editors at Microsoft News in favour of artificial intelligence (AI), according to The Guardian. 

For those unaware, Microsoft News is the company’s news content arm that operates MSN.com and other properties. 

The move has affected dozens of news contractors (about 50 in the U.S., 27 in the UK) who are not direct employees of Microsoft but work via staffing agencies, Aquent, IFG and MAQ Consulting. They have been notified “that their services would no longer be needed beyond June 30”. However, full-time news producers employed by Microsoft will continue to stay with the company.

The contract workers were responsible for choosing, editing and curating stories from news organisations, as well as select headlines, pictures or slides for the MSN site. They also planned content, maintained the editorial calendars of partner news websites and assigned content to them.

One staff member who worked on the team and is facing redundancy said, “It’s demoralising to think machines can replace us but there you go.”

Another staff member added, “I spend all my time reading about how automation and AI is going to take all our jobs, and here I am – AI has taken my job.”

Until now, the news was being manually curated, which guaranteed that headlines were clear and accurate, “encouraging the spread of political opinions and avoiding untrustworthy stories, while highlighting interesting articles from smaller outlets”.

According to one of the terminated contractors, the decision to replace humans with software was a risky move, as AI may not be fully familiar with strict internal editorial guidelines in place at MSN. As a result, they could end up displaying violent or potentially inappropriate content for younger readers on Microsoft’s MSN website and its Edge browser. 

Microsoft has been gradually moving away from human-created content to AI in recent months. It has also been encouraging publishers and journalists to make use of AI.

Microsoft News says it uses AI to scan content, understand “dimensions like freshness, category, topic type, opinion content and potential popularity and then presents it for our editors. Our algorithms suggest appropriate photos to pair with content to help bring stories to life. Editors then curate the top stories throughout the day, across a variety of topics, so our readers get the latest news from the best sources.”

Microsoft, like some other tech companies, pays news sites to be able to use their content on MSN. The company says the latest move is part of an evaluation of its business.

In a statement to the Times, Microsoft said it “like all companies, we evaluate our business on a regular basis. This can result in increased investment in some places and, from time to time, re-deployment in others. These decisions are not the result of the current pandemic.”

Microsoft is one of many tech companies experimenting with AI journalism to cut costs. Another tech giant is Google who too has invested in robot journalist projects to understand how it might work. 

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