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Anchors Away

Our buddies over at Lost Remote have taken note of a project at Northwestern which generates a virtual news show – complete with anchor. "Totally autonomous, it collects, parses, edits and organizes news stories and then passes the formatted content to an artificial anchor for presentation," says Northwestern Infolab. "Using the resources present on the web, the system goes beyond the straight text of the news stories to also retrieve relevant images and blogs with commentary on the topics to be presented."

The goal of "News at Seven" is to replace the traditional TV news broadcast with something automatic and personalized – and, presumably, cheap, what with all those pesky "talent" salaries eliminated. We watched their sample video, which is here – it opens with an image of an attractive, tough-looking young woman in front of the equivalent of a blue screen. "Hi, my name is Alex Vance," says the, um, woman in an off-putting, mechanical voice. "I'm taking a break from fighting zombies to bring you the national news update." She later shoots a zombie in the middle of a story about NASA. Apparently, this particular newscast was personalized for Lara Croft fans.

The other feature is akin to the "freeSpeech" segment on the Evening News, only it features a blogger with opinions relevant to a particular news story. There is no human being vetting the bloggers opinions, which raises questions about their quality – although human involvement, as we've seen recently, certainly doesn't guarantee that people won't be unhappy about opinions presented on a newscast.

"News at Seven" is still in an embryonic state, and it has a long way to go before it can be seen as a "viable replacement to the typical televised news show," as its creators hope. But the idea of personalization is a powerful one, and there are those who argue that the age of mass appeal newscasts has come and gone. Why, they wonder, would a video game-obsessive watch Katie, Charlie or Brian when he could get his news from Alex Vance? At least she'll shoot the occasional zombie.

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