China debuts new AI anchor for state-run news agency

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China's AI anchor becomes reality

China’s commitment to developing an infrastructure around artificial intelligence doesn’t stop with street corner cameras that identify someone in a crowd simply by the way they walk. Nor does it stop by nabbing motorcyclists who break the law with the help of facial recognition technology developed by the firm behind Bikini.com. Last month, China’s official state-run news agency, Xinhua, revealed the world’s first “AI Anchor” for its news broadcasts.

Kent Brockman meets Max Headroom

According to Xinhua, the AI anchor made “his” debut at the World Internet Conference in November. Jointly developed by Xinhua and the Chinese search engine company Sogou.com, the anchor is based on a real broadcaster, with select motions of “his” mouth and face animated to read the news. Although the anchor’s voice is flat and synthetic like Siri’s, programmers can input text and render a virtual news segment much quicker than would be possible using traditional CGI.

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Xinhua says its virtual anchors—one for English broadcasts, another for Chinese—have already been integrated into their news teams. These industrious avatars will gladly work 24-hour shifts on Xinhua’s “official website and various social media platforms, reducing news production costs and improving efficiency.”

Changes in the News and AI

While the AI tech may be new, the region has a history in pioneering novel news formats. For example, the popularity of TomoNews, which creates absurd animated videos based around real news stories, has expanded far beyond its original audience of Chinese-speakers.

Furthermore, audiences are growing more and more comfortable with the idea of virtual, computer-generated celebrities. Hatsune Miku, the Japanese holographic pop star, has become a global phenomenon, performing sold out shows and headlining a Playstation VR title. Add in the more recent phenomena of virtual Instagram celebrities like Lil Miquela (1.5 million followers) and Shudu (“the world’s first digital supermodel”), and it appears that we’re more primed than ever for the introduction of a VR Walter Cronkite.

Mouthpiece for Propaganda

Still, the new developments in AI raise some concerns, especially in the hands of an authoritarian government like China. As The Verge points out, in a country where there is no true free press and major political scandals go unreported, “Creating fake anchors to read propaganda sounds chilling.” And if the technology were to be embraced here in America, there could be even less accountability for the proprietors of misleading and false news.

That’s still speculative and for the time being, Xinhua’s “composite anchors” don’t have much going for them beyond their novelty (with its lack of intonations, the voice in this sample video sounds less like a trusted anchor than a male Siri unleashing a stream-of-consciousness rant). But if nothing else, the AI anchor proves that even those of us in professional careers could be replaced by automation, and perhaps sooner than we think.