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Looking at AI’s impact on media through a more future-oriented lens – with media futurist Sofie Hvitved

“The juxtaposition of man and machine is yesterday’s thinking. The boundary will most likely increasingly dissolve. Digital will become more human-like, and human more digital-like. Hence our understanding of what is ‘real’, ‘true’ and ‘trustworthy’ will be redefined.” That is from Sofie Hvitved, futurist and head of Media at the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies. In her role at the Institute, Hvitved is engaged in the intersection between media and technology, and how the future media landscape is going to unfold. She focuses much of her work on the future of the Metaverse as well as being head of the project Future Nordic Media Landscape 2030. Ahead of WAN-IFRA’s World News Media Congress in Copenhagen (where she was scheduled to join a panel discussion at to discuss how news publishers can realise the potential of AI), Hvitved shared with Dean Roper her insights on how news publishers could take a longer view of AI’s role in their business.

How would you characterise the discourse around AI (especially GAI) within the news industry, in terms of optimism (or not) and pushing the envelope on innovating with AI?
Hvitved: Like with all new technological marvels comes a certain amount of hype – and especially when it comes to something as ground-breaking as GAI (generative artificial intelligence). And as soon as the technology starts to be hyped, a counterwave starts forming. What are the societal consequences? What does it mean for us as human beings? How will this affect my work in the newsroom? There are a group of extremely dedicated and innovative people within and outside the media industry trying to see how to approach this in a more holistic and comprehensive way – both harvesting the possibilities while setting boundaries and guardrails. Moving fast, but not breaking the journalistic principles along the way.

I think the news industry is hesitant but is aware that something radical needs to be done to prepare for a new media reality. One where the consumers are much more digital, fragmented and come with a higher expectation for hyper-personalised, relevant – as well as authentic – content in a business environment that is struggling financially. That is a difficult task to achieve if you are using a non-AI-assisted, human workforce, but many media companies are hesitant – and as always benchmarking with each other instead of paying attention to what’s happening around society and in other sectors.

How concerned are you that the focus seems to be more on the short term vs a longer-term perspective?
That’s definitely a huge concern. Today, media companies tend to look primarily at the first phase with faster, cheaper, more efficient – and arguably more creative – solutions around content gathering, production, distribution and administration. But in a long-term perspective, the possible scenarios that might play out have much larger consequences on completely new platforms, new formats, new interfaces and new ecosystems with a need for radically new business models.

Obviously, this could have a profound effect on the news industry, where the two polarities are: should media form data relationships with the tech companies that power the large language models or preserve a more human-exclusive approach to journalism. Being a futurist with the main task to focus on the media industry, I think it’s urgent that news publishers take these uncertainties more seriously and use the possible scenarios to make more future-informed strategic decisions. It’s about having a prepared mindset for the possible radical changes that are very likely around the corner – in a long-term perspective.

Is it a good thing that some of the frenzy around GAI has died down and publishers can seemingly take a deep breath to consider broader strategies? Or is there no real time for a ‘wait and see’ approach, for example, to see how some of the regulatory issues unfold?
It’s always good to take a deep breath! And I think we all need that to step wisely into the future and not let ourselves be seduced by the hype and shiny new objects. But there is also an inherent danger that we tend to say, “well, this hasn’t changed anything on the short run, so it might not change anything on the long run either.” … like what happened with other hypes, such as blockchain and the metaverse. These concepts and technologies are still being developed under the radar and might still have a significant impact in the future, but many media companies tend to disregard them because they do not offer a quick return on investment in an industry under pressure. Essentially, they are not so willing to focus on more risk-averse (radical), future-driven innovation.

Regarding the regulatory framework, this will constantly change but you can start preparing by building AI solutions that are human-centric, responsible, secure, transparent and explainable – then you go a long way toward future-proofing upcoming regulations.

How would you say the news industry stacks up against other industries coping with the same issues?
The media industry has always been a bit slow when it comes to adapting to change. Back in the 2000s I was involved in organising a Nordic conference called New Media Days at a time when, for example, social media and the internet was up for debate. Many news organisations didn’t exactly take it seriously saying that the internet would never change their main business model. And yes, maybe the printed newspaper didn’t die 10 years later, but it’s safe to say that the business model is struggling with paper-based media declining dramatically due to a number of reasons. At the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, we work with the term ‘future-driven radical innovation’, which demands a more outside-in perspective, looking at what’s happening in society and other sectors. This could be helpful for a legacy industry which has notoriously been benchmarking with other news organisations instead of looking at the broader picture.

In my humble opinion – and pardon the chosen term – the media industry tends to “pee in the pants to keep warm”. I am also a member of the Media Board in Denmark supporting media innovation, so I know what I am talking about. But as we all know, this will only keep us ‘warm’ for a short period of time. It will be short-lived warmth for democracy, so to speak, not preparing ourselves for the future and taking more radical bets rather than only placing our money on incremental innovation.

AI would seem the ideal opportunity around collaboration / partnerships, whether that be with universities, other news orgs, associations, platforms… how could this help news organisations?
Collaboration is definitely a key to creating more ambitious solutions, but historically it’s not been easy for news organisations to collaborate since they often see each other as competitors. Obviously, partnerships and collaborations outside the news industry seem to be a no-brainer, but they also have to make sense for the business model – not ending with just time spent on knowledge sharing and talking. It is necessary to take action, and resources must follow accordingly. It’s time to support the innovators instead of fighting them.

Anything else you would like to add?
I think in general our understanding of artificial intelligence will change over time. At the moment, AI has a huge trust problem. What it generates is considered fake, inferior and the opposite of truth. But that might likely change as the technology develops and the general public’s understanding of it expands. It is a plausible future that we will trust machines as much as we trust humans in the future, because humans are not exactly unproblematic either. Much of the hate speech and harassment on the internet is not due to too much AI, but might be due to the lack of it? The juxtaposition of man and machine is yesterday’s thinking. The boundary will most likely increasingly dissolve. Digital will become more human-like, and the human more digital-like. Hence our understanding of what it ‘real’, ‘true’ and ‘trustworthy’ will be redefined.

(By special arrangement with WAN-IFRA. Dean Roper is director of Insights and editor-in-chief of WAN-IFRA. He is responsible for coordinating all activities related to the organisation’s array of multimedia publications. He has three decades of experience working in the news publishing industry.)