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China launches AI 'virtual' news anchor on Xinhua network

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 09-11-2018 Nick Charity
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The world's first AI anchorman has started broadcasting the news to Chinese viewers.


Beijing's state news agency has unveiled a virtual newsreader, who wears a snappy suit and slick hair, and speaks with a robotic voice.

The Xinhua news agency said the presenter "can read texts as naturally as a professional news anchor".

A comparison between the machine and his human counterpart reading the headlines in Chinese showed startling similarities which fade as soon as the 'robot' anchor opens his mouth and starts speaking.

"Hello everyone I am an English artificial intelligence anchor. This is my very first day in Xinhau news agency," said an English-language version of the presenter, modelled on a real reporter with the agency, Zhang Zhao.

The system means presenters can work 24-hours a day on its website and social media channels, "reducing production costs".

"I will work tirelessly to keep you informed as texts will be typed into my system uninterrupted," said the presenter in an introductory video.

The agency pointed out that the presenters may be particularly useful for disseminating breaking news reports in a timely manner.

Tweets have started rolling out from CNC English-language news today with the bulletins read by the anchor, designed in collaboration with Sogou, China's second biggest search engine company after Baidu and a key competitor to Google.

AI ethics expert Professor Noel Sharkey told the Standard that developers were able to model the virtual news reader from the "constrained set of expressions" real anchors commonly used.

"It is clear that the AI anchor is directly reciting continuous text that it is receiving," he said. "The AI component is in the use of machine learning for the difficult task of making the expressions of the CGI news anchor both match the text and and look like a real news anchor.

"It will have been trained on a large sample of the real anchor’s expressions. News readers have a constrained set of expression to show importance, humour and gravitas which makes this possible.

And developers will will need to make their AI more expressive and develop more language if it is to keep people interested, he added.

"Don’t forget that this is a CGI and so it can do anything," said Prof. Sharkey. "It could levitate above the news desk to illustrate a point or fly like a rocket. It could even turn into a rainstorm. There are plenty of tricks to make for an interesting news cast.

"But I can't help but feel a slight shudder of a ‘big brother tool’ with an army of more realistic CGIs pumping out propaganda 24 hours a day."

The virtual reporter signed off a bulletin on China's 19th Journalists Day: "Before we go I'd like to send my good wishes to all the journalists across the country.

"As an AI anchor under development I know there is a lot to improve. Thank you for being with us, goodbye for now."

In pics: China Viewed From Above

(Slideshow provided by The Atlantic)

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