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American Journalism Review
This Reporter's a News Machine  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   May 2002

This Reporter's a News Machine   

MIT invention aims to increase battle zone coverage

By Fanen Chiahemen
     


The Afghan people may think they've seen every sort of foreign journalist on the planet, but they might be about to meet a reporter like no other. This war correspondent is a cute little robot with a long neck, tiny Mickey Mouse ears and a tail with a peace sign tacked to it.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab developed the Afghan Explorer to gather information in war zones and other regions off-limits to people reporters. It will beam back pictures and sounds from places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Pakistan, says inventor Chris Csikszentmihalyi.

For Csikszentmihalyi, the Explorer is a political statement. He says that physical danger and too much restriction by the United States' military have led to "a progressive decline of human mobility for reporters" in war zones. "The First Amendment has stopped working," he laments. So, he hopes his invention will get people the information they are missing.

Modeled after the Mars Pathfinder, the $10,000 Explorer is a combination of advanced technology and off-the-shelf hardware. It moves on all-terrain-vehicle wheels. It has a computer screen for a head that can project an interviewer's face and a two-way microphone for interviewing and sound recording.

And the Explorer's cute look is no accident--it's a protective device. "The point was to make it immune to law enforcement," he says. "No one will incarcerate it, it's so cute." As for when the Explorer will get a test drive, Csikszentmihalyi is purposely vague, saying, "particular people don't want to see this thing out there." However, he does say plans are in the works to get the robot to an independent news organization in the Afghanistan region, perhaps by this spring.

USA Today foreign correspondent Jack Kelley doesn't expect the Explorer to make many friends, cuteness notwithstanding. "If I were a Taliban fighter, and I saw this thing, I would steal its Palm Pilot head and then take a rocket to it," Kelley says. "With all due respect to the inventor, I think our jobs as reporters are safe."

But Columbia University journalism Professor John Pavlik says the idea of a robotic reporter is viable. "I love the idea that it could save journalists' lives," Pavlik says. "To me, anything that could reduce the number of deaths of reporters is terrific."

However, Pavlik doubts the robot is advanced enough to be useful now. And he is not surprised by some journalists' cynical reaction to the Explorer and its inventor. (Army Times Managing Editor Robert Hodierne asked if it carried a union card.)

"Journalists in general are afraid of technology, and they're skeptical by nature" Pavlik says. "If they weren't skeptical, they wouldn't be journalists."

Csikszentmihalyi says the Explorer is not intended to replace reporters. "It would make a miserable foreign correspondent." He adds, "It might not be able to gain trust, but it has bravado."

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