Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

How to Make Lots of Web Video, Really Fast: Get Rid of (Most of) the Humans

robot shutterstock:Rainer Plendl

Image copyright Rainer Plendl

Heads up, professional video makers: Robots may be coming for your jobs.

We’ve already seen that software can replace human beings who used to write and edit news stories. Now, Wochit, an Israeli-born startup, is trying to do the same thing with video news.

And it’s quite possible that you’ve seen some of its work already: Wochit’s stuff is running on big portals like Yahoo, and on many smaller sites, via distributors like Grab Media.

Wochit can take prewritten stories from outlets like Reuters and turn them into videos by assembling an appropriate mix of images, clips and narration. Human beings touch the video twice during production — once when a “moderator” quickly scans the clip to make sure the basic elements are in the right place, and once when someone reads the voice-over copy.

Wochit said the entire process takes an average of 10 minutes, and that lets the company make hundreds of clips a day.

The results have been getting better throughout the year. Now they’re quite passable. Here’s how Wochit handled a story this morning about President Obama and the Too Big to Fail banks:

No one’s going to mistake this stuff for a “60 Minutes” report. But, depending on the use case, it may certainly be good enough. Wochit is aimed at Web video, where lots of people are looking for ad-friendly clips that users might also click on. But in the not-so-distant future, I can see this stuff working on conventional TV, too.

Eventually, Wochit CEO Keith McAllister said, the company wants to set up a self-service system where anyone could feed it text and get a usable video. If a brand like, um, AllThingsD wanted to add our own narration (or whatever), we could do that, too.

This is likely worrisome for some human beings who currently get paid to edit and produce news videos. But humans have been grappling with the pros and cons of automation for a long time.

And if you want to put a sunnier face on it, feel free to paraphrase my take on it when I wrote about the possibility that Narrative Science’s story-writing robots might take my job: “The trick for content makers like myself is to find work that only content makers like myself can do — work where human qualities like experience, judgment and creativity get rewarded. And if we can’t do that, we ought to be doing something else, anyway.”

Here’s a quick interview I conducted (but didn’t edit) with McAllister last week:

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Nobody was excited about paying top dollar for a movie about WikiLeaks. A film about the origins of would have done better.

— Gitesh Pandya of comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”