Breaking Down News: Cow and Bull Story

Breaking Down News: Cow and Bull Story

Of bovines who don’t know better, bots which know a lot and those who separate the facts from the fake.

Breaking Down News: Cow and Bull Story
The  news also included Rahul Gandhi’s press conference. A real press conference, with real questions. (AP Phpto)

Move over, cow vigilantes. The real bovines have entered the fray. When cattle are in the news, we usually brace for the human body count. But things have changed for the better. In its morning rapid-fire news capsule on Thursday, Zee showed a cow which had somehow trapped itself in a Trekker after a road accident, and had to be rescued by the local administration. Topping that strange achievement was the celebrated bull which ran amok amidst Navjot Singh Sidhu’s entourage while they were inspecting the beautification of Durgiani temple in Amritsar. The good minister escaped its attention and may find something to joke about in the incident, but his followers were mercilessly thrashed by the beast.

What is the fatal attraction which impels almost every TV news channel to mercilessly switch its feed to the NaMo app when the prime minister begins talking on it? Those who have subscribed to the echo chamber may well wish to tune in, but why must the media serve as a captive power amp? On the last day of campaigning for the Karnataka assembly election, it was hard to escape the prime minister’s parting shot across the bows of the Congress. You could hammer away at the remote, and not miss a second of the speech. Only Mirror Now kept away from it, preferring to go into the algae which are apparently launching airborne attacks on the Taj Mahal.

But the news also included Rahul Gandhi’s press conference. A real press conference, with real questions, rather than the genial harangue suddenly stooping to plumb the depths, which has become the SOP of BJP campaigns. It marks a turning point for Gandhi, who was civil, collected and talking sense, in an atmosphere befouled by duplicitous moaning about Cariappa and Tipu Sultan. While the BJP has become accustomed to choosing the location and the weapons, for the first time, Gandhi politely declined to duel on their terms of engagement.

Meanwhile, the BBC had scrambled all assets against a fake survey attributed to them, which gave a shocking majority to the BJP. “The BBC does not commission pre-election surveys in India,” their India office and the press team in London clarified. Now, it remains for Indian fakebusters — who are getting better at their calling every week — to out the idiot who started it.


The fakehunters at Altnews have unearthed a sizeable trove of plagiarised articles from the India Foundation, which have been quietly taken down without the customary explanation or apology. It has been shrugged off by the organisation, as if it were a clerical error, though it is headed by significant gentlemen in the ruling party and the government. Victims of their plagiarisation include a Spanish think tank, a US Congressional service, the University of Southern California, an unnamed Times of India editorial-writer and our colleague Anil Sasi of The Indian Express. We are most envious of him. Emulation is the sincerest form of flattery. Even when it is cut-and-paste.

Google’s I/O keynote, in which Sundar Pichai put the company’s new, improved assistant through its paces, has opened the door to a place which no one really understands. While Julia, the internet’s original chatbot, could hold up her end for a conversation for only a few seconds, before its interlocutors figured out that they were talking to a machine, Google is now able to execute complex, context-aware tasks like placing calls to make restaurant bookings. It can also negotiate the most difficult situation that a machine can face: failure. No tables free at the restaurant at 8 pm? That does not compute!

But Google now has the verbal skills to exit gracefully from such a situation. This is not quite passing the Turing test, but they’re getting somewhere close. Which opens up a fresh paradox. People are not going to be pleased to learn that without their informed consent, they have been talking to a computer. At the same time, if humans are informed of machine-based interlocution by a flag of some sort, it defeats the purpose. This problem is going to assume significance because assistants will soon be negotiating much more than restaurant bookings.

Bargaining is the most promising field. Remember the Facebook bots which were shut down because they had begun to converse in a language which wasn’t quite English? Well, those were experimental bargaining bots, and humans may not be comfortable dickering with them. The big question which needs to be answered now is: what is the audio equivalent of the capcha test, “I am not a bot”? That’s the only way you can tell if you’re talking to a machine.