4 min read

Recognizing the unrecognizable

Gantry crane at Long Island City
One of the gantries in Long Island City, Queens, New York.

Some thoughts on journalism a few decades from now.

I moved to a new apartment a few weeks ago. I traded my small place in Manhattan for a much larger place across the East River in the Long Island City section of Queens.

I'm in a lovely, high-rise building with spectacular views. And I'm not alone. There are tens of thousands of people living along the waterfronts of Long Island City and the nearby Brooklyn neighborhoods of Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Dumbo in brand-new, lovely, high-rise buildings with spectacular views.

These neighborhoods have changed – dramatically – in just a few years. New Yorkers of my age remember when the waterfront was a collection of abandoned warehouses and industrial ruins. We remember too when those abandoned buildings first attracted artists and other young people who embraced the low cost and large spaces of life among the ruins. And there are people older than I who remember when thousands of people worked along the waterfront, when the ruins were not ruins.

It's common among New Yorkers to say that the Queens-Brooklyn waterfront is "unrecognizable" now. But that's not true. Scattered across the shores of the river are massive, instantly recognizable objects that show this is the same place. There's still a giant Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City. It sits in Gantry Plaza State Park, named after the massive railroad gantries that were the centerpieces of industrial Queens. The gantries are still there too. Head south along the river and you'll see a replica of the Domino Sugar sign that loomed over Brooklyn for more than a century. It sits in Domino Park near two gantry cranes painted turquoise.

These objects are less symbols than they are icons. They have a significance, a meaning in and of themselves that defines the East River waterfront. They tell us that yes, this is still the waterfront.

AI and journalism

There's been much debate of late regarding artificial intelligence and journalism. That's to be expected. AI is already changing journalism. There's no doubt that it will continue to do so.

Jobs are being lost. So we argue about the things that AI can't yet do as well as humans. AI is in the newsroom. So we set guidelines on how journalists should – and shouldn't – work with it. So much of the handwringing about AI seems to be trying to slow, to control, to limit the amount of change that is coming.

But I've come to believe these debates – because they focus almost entirely on generative AI such as ChatGPT – miss the point.

Consider this:

Scientists last year used machine learning (a different subset of artificial intelligence) to identify antimicrobial peptides encoded by the genome sequences of microbes in the human gut. I'm not a biologist. I'm not even sure I understand what an antimicrobial peptide is. But I do understand the significance of this description from The Guardian newspaper: "...strikingly, almost half of the peptides discovered were entirely new, without obvious sequence similarity to known antimicrobials, thus increasing the chances of circumventing existing resistance mechanisms."

And consider this too:

Earlier this year, artificial intelligence led to  the discovery of three new nanostructures, including a first-of-its-kind nanoscale "ladder." Now I don't know what a nanostructure is. You probably don't either. But we don't need to understand that to understand this description from Science Daily: scientists "have been developing an AI framework that can autonomously define and perform all the steps of an experiment. CAMERA's gpCAM algorithm drives the framework's autonomous decision-making. The latest research is the team's first successful demonstration of the algorithm's ability to discover new materials."

Or consider this example, which might be a little closer to home for those of us in the content industry:

The entire online advertising industry has already been transformed by systems built and run by artificial intelligence. Ad retargeting today is done by artificial intelligence at speeds beyond the capabilities of humans, using quantities of data that humans cannot comprehend. AI itself makes the decisions about who to target, when and how much to pay.

Ad retargeting technology is ubiquitous today. And just a few years ago it was an experiment.

There are dozens of other examples like this. AI can trade stocks, screen for diseases, detect online fraud and even write its own machine learning code.

And every one of these examples involves an AI acting autonomously to find a way to do something in an entirely new way.

As I said earlier, I think today's conversations about AI in journalism miss the point. That's because today's conversations are about the role of generative AI in the near future.

Far more interesting to me – and far more significant to all of us – is the role of machine learning, neural networks and perhaps even artificial general intelligence and the levels of AI beyond that, in how news and information is created, distributed and consumed a few decades from now.

Because it seems clear to me that AI will develop entirely new forms of content. This will be much, much more than AI writing news stories faster than humans can or creating videos from scratch with AI-generated characters rather than actors.

AI will invent forms of media on its own that we simply can't imagine today. AI will invent a form of journalism that is as far removed from online news today as newspapers were from cave drawings.

So I keep thinking about the East River waterfront.

I first moved to New York 45 years ago. I remember the ruins and abandoned cranes. I remember too the beginning of change as artists, hipsters, and finally developers began to invent a new waterfront. And today I live here and walk past iconic gantries and Pepsi-Cola signs that tell me yes, this is the waterfront. It is unrecognizable, and yet you recognize it.

This city is filled with young journalists, designers, marketeers and photographers. New York attracts creative people as they start their careers. Perhaps it always will. Fourty-five years from now they will work in entirely new forms of media invented by AI. Or perhaps not. Maybe the machines will do all the work. If I could predict what is to come I'd have been a futures trader on Wall Street, not a writer in Long Island City.

So I'm left to wonder: what will remain of today's journalism when AI has created new things on its own? What icons will be preserved and painted turquoise? What will prove worth holding on to?

What will writers see a half century from now that tells them, yes, this is the waterfront. This is journalism. It is unrecognizable, and yet you recognize it.