China Unveils AI News Anchors


China’s state-run news agency Xinhua has unveiled new artificial intelligence anchors – digital composites created from footage of human hosts that read the news with synthesized voices.

It is not exactly clear what technology was used to create the anchors, however, they are in line with the most recent machine-learning research. Xinhua used footage from the human anchors as the base layer, and then animated the mouth and face to create a virtual puppet. This was combined with a synthesized voice allows Xinhua to program the AI anchors to read the news quicker than using CGI.

The Verge reached out to field experts for their analysis.

Reports from Xinhua and the South China Morning Post, there are two AI anchors: One for Chinese broadcasts and one for English. The anchors were created in collaboration with Sogou, a local search engine company. According to Xinhua, the anchors have “endless prospects” and are inexpensive to generate news reports for the new agency’s TV, mobile, and web output.

Each anchor can work “24 hours a day on the its official website and various social media platforms, reducing new production cost and improving efficiency,” according to Xinhua.

The AI technology is limited. There is a limited range of facial expression and the voice is obviously artificial. However, machine-learning research is making improvements quickly, which makes it easy to imagine a future where people will not be able to distinguish them from a real person.

For many, this may be a disturbing prospect, especially since the technology is being used in China where the press is censored, and it is nearly impossible to obtain clear and accurate reports of even widespread events like China’s suppression of the Muslim Uighur community. Creating AI anchors to read propaganda could sound chilling.

The effects on society if AI anchors become widespread is difficult to determine. Nevertheless, artificial characters are beginning to find their way into mainstream culture. There are figures like the virtual pop star Hatsune Miku and CGI Instagram models to familiarize the public with this type of technology.

Even though these examples are clearly part of the world of entertainment, AI anchors reading the news indicates the creation could become more than a novelty.

The AI news anchors were unveiled on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, at an internet conference in the city of Wuzhen.

“Hello, you are watching English news program. I am AI new anchor in Beijing,” the computer-generated host announced in a robotic voice at the start of its English broadcast.

Xinhua said the simulations can be used on the website and social media platforms and will “reduce news production costs and improve efficiency.”

However, the state-run news agency did not say if any of China’s state-run TV channels have an interest in using the technology for the future.

The suit and tie wearing English AI anchor is modeled after a real-life Xinhua anchor named Zhang Zhao.

In an introductory video, the English AI anchor promised to keep people informed as texts are typed into his system without interruption.

The Chinese AI anchor unveiled at the conference is also modeled after a real-life Xinhua new anchor.

People who use China’s micro-blogging site called Weibo were not convinced by the virtual newscaster.

One user complained that the AI anchor’s voice was too stiff and that there were problems with his pauses. Another commented, “apparently, news anchors have to lose their jobs.”

The Asian continent operates one of the most aggressive media censorship regimes in the world. Recently, the country place tighter restrictions on domestic and foreign news outlets under President Xi Jinping. However, the newsrooms are still innovating.

Xinhua claims the AI anchor is the world’s first, however, it is not the first time the Chinese media has experimented with AI technology.

In 2015, Dragon TV used Microsoft’s Xiaolce chatbot to give a weather report on a live broadcast. The AI program delivered the weather forecast in a “cute” female voice, according to Xinhua.

Automated reporting had rapidly increased recently. The Associated Press wire service in one major news organization that uses computer algorithms to write thousands of automated news stories.

By Jeanette Smith


The Verge: China’s state-run press agency has created an ‘AI anchor’ to read the news
CNN: China has developed a virtual anchor to deliver the news

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