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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

One of the most frustrating parts of journalism is writing headlines — they need to be pithy and smart, drawing in readers but not infuriating them with cheap clickbait.

What's new: Perhaps the simplest solution is to summarize an article as efficiently as possible. And because machines are getting increasingly good at that, AI headline writers can now nearly instantly generate titles that outshine even some human-made ones.

Details: Primer, an AI company, built a tool to do this, and spoke first with Axios about it.

  • To learn how actual news editors write headlines, Primer's system read more than 1 million news articles and the headlines they were paired with — but only those where the headline was made up entirely of words found in the story.
  • Once trained, it can read a new article and string together the best possible series of words to turn into a headline, according to Primer.
  • In what Primer director of science John Bohannon calls a "headline Turing Test," evaluators were asked to rate computer-generated headlines against the originals — without knowing which is which. In its final form, Primer tied or beat out humans more than half the time, the company said.

The big picture: Understanding and generating natural language is still one of the hardest problems in AI, but machines are making significant advances.

  • New research has supercharged the method that Primer used for its headline generator, packing it with untold levels of data and computing power. The result: shockingly realistic, but still fact-free, prose.
  • Publishers are experimenting with condensing an entire scientific field into a book. They're not very good yet.
  • In the future, better summarization can help create a connected web of academic research that can make it much easier to understand the state of the art in a field, and encourage scientists to re-test colleagues' results.

I asked Bohannon to headline some of our recent stories. The results:

What's next: Summarizing huge troves of documents can help fish out useful information from a bottomless sea. Eventually, says Bohannon, a machine that has a good idea of what you care about can read through millions of documents and send you summaries of only the most relevant information.

Go deeper

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Winter view from Charlotte as winter storm Izzy creates dangerous conditions in Charlotte, N.C. on Jan. 16. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A major winter storm was lashing much of the East Coast on Sunday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The big picture: Heavy snow and ice accumulations are "likely to produce hazardous travel," downed trees and more power outages from the Mid-South to the Northeast, per the National Weather Service. Some parts of the U.S. can expect to see up to a foot of snow through Monday.

Updated 3 hours ago - Science

Volcanic eruption in Tonga caused "significant" damage

This satellite image of the eruption on Jan. 15 taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency and released by National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT). Photo: NICT via AP

Significant damage has been reported in Tonga following an undersea volcanic eruption on Saturday, which covered the Pacific nation in ash and cut off communication lines.

Driving the news: The eruption triggered tsunami warnings across Tonga's islands and in other regions, including the West Coast of the U.S. and New Zealand.

3 hours ago - World

North Korea launches 4th suspected missile test this month

A news broadcast in Seoul, South Korea, of an apparent North Korean missile test on Monday morning local time. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea's military fired "two suspected short-range ballistic missiles" eastward from Pyongyang on Monday morning local time, per South Korean and Japanese officials.

Why it matters: The fourth such launch since Jan. 5 comes days after North Korea's military warned of "stronger" action if the U.S. moved to have more sanctions imposed on the country.