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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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