Robots: The New York Times vs. WPTZ

07/16/2010 10:34 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

From childhood, I have always regarded The New York Times as the world's greatest newspaper, and the leading source of reasonably objective information. Yet, there is something about it that has always bothered me. Now, thanks to two versions of Bina48, I think I've discovered the source of my discomfort -- the Times lacks humility. It seems always to be talking down to us, lecturing to us.

I read the Times story about Bina48 on July 4th; it was datelined Bristol, VT. The Times reporter had interviewed an anthropomorphic robot named Bina who, by virtue of an advanced artificial intelligence system, has the ability to engage in conversation. I thought it was a terrific story, and, as I do whenever I read a great piece about Vermont, I called my son. He is the Assistant News Director at WPTZ, the NBC affiliate station in the Burlington/Plattsburgh, NY area. I suggested that he send a crew down to Bristol to do a television version of the story.

Last week, when I came back to work, I discovered that the Times had also done a video clip of the Bina story. The reporter, Amy Harmon, seemed friendly enough at the beginning of the interview with Bina, but repeatedly referred to "her" as"it". As the interview wore on, and Bina showed her shortcomings, Amy seemed to be disappointed, and somewhat condescending. She later seemed to almost accept Bina as a person and said that she "just wanted to help her [Bina] be less confused". She made it clear that she regarded her as an android, and one from which she had expected more.

The WPTZ reported, Stewart Ledbetter, was much more accepting of Bina, even with her limitations. He was not even embarrassed when she proved to be smarter than he was. When he asked Bina who our first President was, she replied "Now you're just buttering me up. George Washington was first President of the United States." He did not seem bothered that she had caught him out. They continued a friendly conversation until, sounding like 14 year old girl, she told him, "I want to be cool, I want to be fun, I want to be friends." Somehow, the computer enabled her to answer a question as if she were truly human.
I think the Times reporter treated Bina, treating her subject as an inferior species (a trait not uncommon in Times reporters), while the local television guy was just taking her "as is" -- recognizing her shortcomings, while truly appreciating her capabilities. Without trying to appear too anthropomorphic, I think Bina responded more sincerely to Ledbetter than to Harmon.

At this point, the Times video has accumulated 138,079 views on YouTube, and the WPTZ piece has managed merely 67. At the risk of seeming partial to my son's television station, I'd like to request readers to take a look at both videos and comment about them. I may be on to something, but on the other hand, I may be making much ado about very little. Let me know.