King unveils robotic journalist at ONA conference in New Orleans

Technology is changing every aspect of 21st-century journalism, including who (or what) can be called a journalist. 

This week, Associate Professor Steven King  unveiled RoboJ, an experimental robot journalist he developed, at the Online News Association‘s annual conference being held in New Orleans. 

ONA is at the intersection of journalism and technology which is exactly where RoboJ lives,” said King, chief innovation officer of the Reese News Lab at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media

It has taken King and teams of computer science and journalism students three years and multiple iterations to build the robot journalist, which can follow a reporter, stream 360 video and ask pre-scripted questions. 

“My hope is that in a few years journalists will be able to deploy a team of autonomous RoboJ robots to gather information from diverse communities. The interviews will be transmitted to journalists in the newsroom to produce the stories,” King said. 

The RoboJ concept started with solving a problem for the Washington Post in December 2015. The newspaper had contracted King’s UNC Emerging Technologies Lab for a video project. We needed to put a 360 camera near sea lions in the Galapagos Islands but were not allowed to walk on the beach where they were,” King said. “However, we were allowed to send a robot. That first version was built over Christmas with my Dad in his garage. 

After several iterations on their own, King’s team ultimately licensed Segway technology to build RoboJ on top of Segway’s self-balancing and locomotion platform which enables them to use an android operating system for development. 

 Eventually, we want journalists to be able to deploy RoboJ to a place they can’t get to or don’t have the time to get to. Imagine being able to deploy several robotic journalists in various cities across the globe to gather information from diverse communities,” King said. 

Learn more about RoboJ on the UNC Emerging Technologies Lab website, which profiles a number of King’s UNC projects.