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Is The News Anchor’s Days Numbered As China’s State Media Introduces AI Replacements?

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Being a news anchor in the digital era of wall-to-wall broadcasting across platforms is a demanding occupation. Media are under pressure to produce enough content to fill airwaves, traditional and digital, 24 hours a day. While that has meant ever more demand for the professionals who produce and deliver that content, it is of course also a significant expense for broadcasters. The bad news for news anchors is that this has provoked exploration into how the latest technology in the world can be used to bring that expense down. A glimpse of the future may have been seen in China, whose state-run press agency, Xinhua, has started trialling ‘AI Anchors’.

Xinhua’s new employees, who are very low maintenance when it comes to demands around salary and working conditions, are digital images with synthesised voices presenting the news. It is believed the AI-powered digital avatars have been built using footage of human anchors as their ‘base layer’. The latest virtual animation technology keeps their mouths and facial expressions in sync with the words they are programmed to deliver to the watching audience.

Reports in the South China Morning Post suggest that the technology Xinhua is using for its two new AI anchors, one of which has been ‘employed’ for the press agency’s English language broadcasts, has been developed in partnership with Sogou, a Chinese search engine company.

The technology is still not quite there though and video clips of the new AI anchors published by The Verge demonstrate that the range of facial and mouth expressions is still somewhat limited. Close attention to the AI news avatar’s mouth quickly unveils that digital editing is at work. The technology used is similar to the ‘deepfake’ machine learning that superimposes different mouth movements and audio onto real footage. It has been used to spread ‘fake news’ by using existing footage of celebrities or public figures and altering it to communicate a fictional message. Such techniques have led to the viral spread of false information and Barrack Obama earlier this year participated in an exercise designed to raise awareness of the problem.

However, like most technologies, there is the potential for it to be employed positively or negatively. The use synthetic avatars in South East Asia is also not limited to AI news anchors. Japan has had Hatsune Miku, a ‘virtual’ pop star for some years now.

In the UK, we have a history of affection towards prominent news anchors that makes it seem impossible that they could soon be replaced by AI-powered digital avatars in future years. But once the mouth syncing technology is perfected, is it all that hard to imagine that late night slots, online broadcasts or the weather forecast is handed over to AI-anchors? From there, how long will it take for us to get used to the idea enough for the technology to permeate further. After all, the BBC and commercial channels are all juggling tricky budgets. And there is no prospect of a gender pay gap scandal around digital avatars!

Image credit: New China TV

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Whatever Happened to eBay As The FAANGs Trailblazer Struggles To Survive?

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eBay, the online marketplace whose addictive auction system made it the pioneer of the ecommerce model that is now such an existential threat to the huge bricks and moral retail sector, is in danger of becoming irrelevant. That appraisal may seem overblown in the context of eBay’s share price reaching historical highs as recently as February this year. In early 2009 eBay’s share price sat at around $5 and early this year had broken into the upper reaches of $44.

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Will Lloyds’ Share Price And Profits Rise As Digital Transformation Gathers Pace?

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Lloyds Banking Group’s share price climbed higher at the end of last month as the bank’s third quarter profits came in ahead of expectations. Statutory profit before tax for the period came in at £1.8 billion when the analyst consensus had been for £1.7 billion. However, while Lloyds’ share price saw a gain from its October 19th year-to-date low of 56.13 pence, up to 59.49 pence early this month, it is still significantly down from its January high of 71.26 pence. That’s a headache for all those investing online in the bank’s shares through ISAs and SIPPs.

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Facebook Bounces Back With Growing Revenue and Focus on Future Growth Opportunities

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Facebook posted a strong set of quarterly earnings figures yesterday net earnings came in almost 20% ahead of analyst forecasts. Revenue rose 33% on the same three months a year earlier, at $13.7 billion just fractionally short of the $13.8 billion predicted. However, earnings of $1.76 a share when $1.47 had been pencilled in was enough to set a more optimistic market reaction than that of three months ago when revenue growth of 44% wasn’t enough to calm negativity around slowing user numbers growth. CEO Mark Zuckerberg was also seemingly successful in focusing attention towards new growth products, focused on video, that Facebook believe have a bright future despite current monetisation teething problems.

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BP Investors Riding High On Elevated Oil Prices

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Investors in BP have banked some strong gains on the back of the company’s strong Q3 earnings report, which saw share price soar 3.5% in morning trading. While those gains have softened as the day goes on, reported profits that are more than double those recorded over the same three months last year bode well for BP share price’s short to medium term outlook at least.

The soaring oil prices over the past year may not generally be good for our pockets with the price of petrol, plane tickets and manufactured goods all also rising as a result. However, for anyone investing online in the shares of oil companies such as BP and Shell, there is certainly a burnished silver lining. Profits are surging on oil prices up around the $80 level and share prices along with them.

Last year BP reported Q3 profits of $1.4 billion. This year they were $3.1 billion, notably ahead of analysts’ forecasts, despite the higher oil price over the period that saw average trade prices of $75 compared to $52 in 2017. Underlying profits, which exclude one-off costs, currency fluctuations and accountancy effects were $3.8 billion against predictions for $2.9 billion.

With the US-China trade war putting buyers of US-produced WTI, wary of China slapping levies on it, Brent crude and oil from other parts of the world, which makes up most of BP’s trading inventory have benefitted. OPEC production cuts, new U.S sanctions on Iran, the world’s fourth largest oil producer, and ongoing mismanagement of PDVSA, the state-controlled Venezuelan oil company (the country has the world’s largest proven oil reserves) are all currently combining to put upwards pressure on oil prices.

With OPEC and Russia quietly resisting U.S. pressure to ramp up production to compensate for its sanctions on Iran, there is also little prospect that prices will drop significantly any time soon. If anything, they are expected to rise again before the end of the year.

The resulting cash flowing into BP’s coffers is not only boosting its balance sheet in the short term but is helping the company build for the future. The company recently announced its biggest acquisition in more than 20 years – a $10.5 billion deal to buy U.S. shale oil operator BHP Shale. Asset sales planned to raise between $5 billion and $6 billion, and a potential new share offering, were to fund the acquisition. However, the recent boost to BP’s profits means that will now be unnecessary with the assets sale cash instead being diverted towards paying down the company’s debt.

As well as capital gains on BP’s rising share price, investors are also profiting from rising dividends. The company increased dividends to 10.25 cents a share, from 10, in the second quarter. It was the first increase in 4 years and while it has been held steady this time, investors might expect further rewards if Q4 results maintain the current trajectory of BP’s finances.

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Budget 2018: How Will It Impact Your Investments & Personal Finances?

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Yesterday’s Autumn Budget for 2018 was billed as ‘an end to austerity’ and designed to inject confidence into a pre and post-Brexit UK economy that Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond was bullish on. A loosening of the purse strings and spending was announced with the NHS and defence the main beneficiaries. From the point of view of personal finances, the biggest changes announced were those around personal tax rates.

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Will Investing Online Soon Mean Competing Against Quantum Computers?

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A recent study that brought together researchers and analysts from UK bank Standard Chartered and academic group the Universities Space Research Association has examined how quantum computing might be used to improve investment efficiency and results. The outcome was the belief that harnessing processing power that can solve problems up to 100 million times faster than conventional computers could give early adopters an edge when investing in financial markets.

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As Weed Goes Legal in Canada What Does It Mean For Pot Stocks?

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It’s now more than 80 years since it started to become apparent that the American Prohibition’s days were numbered. As detailed by are recent article in The Economist, Prohibition in its southern neighbour was a huge boon for Canada’s distilleries. Alcohol may have been illegal in the USA but demand for it was never quelled. The thirst for booze was unquelled during the Swinging 20s and 30s and a huge black market business thrived.

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Why the Price of Oil Is Rising, Will It Stay High and How Will It Affect Your Investments?

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The price of a barrel of Brent crude may have eased back towards $80 a barrel from its early October high of over $86. A year ago the same barrel of oil cost around $55 and in February of this year $60. West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the U.S.-production oil benchmark has seen a similar pattern to its price trajectory, up above $70 a barrel from below $50 approximately 12 months ago.

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