AI anchors: the future of news or a gimmick without a soul?

The state media agency in China, Xinhua news recently debuted the world’s first AI news anchor. Based on actual human newscasters Zhang Zhao and Qiu Hao, the two new AI anchors can read the news in Chinese and in English.

The inaugural broadcast was hailed a world first and an incorporation of “the latest advances in image detection and prediction capabilities, as well as speech synthesis, to produce a realistic virtual anchor that both appears and sounds like an actual person”, according to a spokesperson from Sogou, the Chinese search engine who partnered with Xinhua in the development of this new addition to Chinese television screens.

The world’s first AI news anchor was unveiled at China’s World Internet Conference.

In the week following the unveiling of Xinhua’s AI news anchor, there has been a hullabaloo of commentary, both from the general public and from experts in artificial intelligence.

One of the sceptics was Will Knight, a senior editor for AI at MIT Technology Review. Speaking to CNBC, Knight said that the use of the term AI to describe the anchor is somewhat problematic, as this is rather an example of machine learning being put to use in innovative ways.

“The use of the term AI is a little bit tricky in this context, because the anchor itself is not intelligent, it doesn’t have any intelligence … But they are using some quite clever kind of machine learning which is a sub-field of AI to capture the likeness of a real anchor and the voice of that anchor,” said Knight.

The reaction from the Chinese public was, to say the least, unenthusiastic, with many people calling the AI anchor “ a news-reading device without a soul”. Around the world, people expressed concern at the technology being used to manufacture fake news – an issue which has been plaguing social media outlets of late.

Whichever way you look at it, the introduction of a news anchor that operates autonomously is a reminder that artificial intelligence has applications that might put many jobs – and even the ones that we thought could exclusively be done by humans – at stake.

Even so, Xinhua’s news anchor is far from perfect, and, in “his” own words, “as an AI news anchor under development, I know there is a lot for me to improve”.

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