The new anchors at China’s state-run news agency have perfect hair and no pulse.
Xinhua News just unveiled what it is calling the world’s first news anchors powered by artificial intelligence, at the World Internet Conference on Wednesday in China’s Zhejiang province. From the outside, they are almost indistinguishable from their human counterparts, crisp-suited and even-keeled. Although Xinhua says the anchors have the “voice, facial expressions and actions of a real person,” the robotic anchors relay whatever text is fed to them in stilted speech that sounds less human than Siri or Alexa.
“I will work tirelessly to keep you informed as texts will be typed into my system uninterrupted,” the English-speaking version says in its debut video.
Developed jointly by Xinhua News and Chinese search engine company Sogou.com, the anchors learn from live broadcasting videos and social media and can work “24 hours a day.” The robots are supposed to help cut costs and improve efficiency, but their presence in the media landscape — marked by limited press freedom and tightly controlled Internet — raises many questions about the quality of information Chinese citizens are given by their government.
The AI anchors are both modeled on real journalists at the agency, Qiu Hao and Zhang Zhao, and they perform basic human expressions like blinking and raising their eyebrows. They can be “endlessly copied,” according to the debut video, and are thus able to cover stories in multiple locations at once.
“The development of the media industry calls for continuous innovation and deep integration with the international advanced technologies,” the English-speaking anchor said in its introduction video. “I look forward to bringing you brand new news experiences.”
The lack of human touch with Xinhua’s AI anchors is not likely to cause much of a stir, said journalist and veteran China watcher Isaac Stone Fish. Xinhua is an organization that dispenses government news releases and gives the public the government and party’s perspective on certain issues, Fish said, so getting news from robots is “not that different.”
“It’s just another way for Beijing to suck the blood out of journalism,” Stone Fish said.
This is not the first time Chinese media has employed robots into its coverage. In 2016, news station Dragon TV started using an AI-powered chatbot for its weather reporting.
Xinhua News’s English Twitter already shows the English-speaking AI anchor in action, covering stories about a museum exhibition at the World Internet Conference and China’s plans to launch a Mars exploration in 2020. Then, Friday morning, “he” even made an appearance on CNBC’s Squawk Box.
Although the AI-anchors are inexhaustible, they are devoid of decision-making and processing skills and cannot offer the emotional element given by a real journalist. In an interview with jieman.com, Wang Xiaochuan, the head of Sogou, conceded that the anchors' abilities to compete with deeper-level human functions are minimal. But they learn fast, Wang said, requiring only 10 minutes of data to effectively mimic a person’s voice. Even so, the anchors themselves have said they have a long way to go.
“As an AI news anchor under development, I know there is a lot for me to improve,” the English-speaking anchor said in his first sign-off.