Xinhua, China’s state-run press agency, has unveiled new “AI anchors” — digital composites created from footage of human hosts that read the news using synthesized voices.
It’s not clear exactly what technology has been used to create the anchors, but they’re in line with the most recent machine learning research. It seems that Xinhua has used footage of human anchors as a base layer, and then animated parts of the mouth and face to turn the speaker into a virtual puppet. By combining this with a synthesized voice, Xinhua can program the digital anchors to read the news, far quicker than using traditional CGI. (We’ve reached out to AI experts in the field to see what their analysis is.)
According to reports from Xinhua and the South China Morning Post, two anchors (one for English broadcasts and one for Chinese) were created in collaboration with local search engine company Sogou. Xinhua says the anchors have “endless prospects” and can be used to cheaply generate news reports for the agency’s TV, web, and mobile output.
Each anchor can “work 24 hours a day on its official website and various social media platforms, reducing news production costs and improving efficiency,” says Xinhua.
The technology has its limitations. In the videos above and below of the English-speaking anchor, it’s obvious that the range of facial expressions are limited, and the voice is clearly artificial. But machine learning research in this area is making swift improvements, and it’s not hard to imagine a future where AI anchors are indistinguishable from the real thing.
This will strike many as a disturbing prospect, especially as the technology is being deployed in China. There, the press is constantly censored, and it is nearly impossible to get clear reports of even widespread events like the country’s suppression of the Muslim Uighur community. Creating fake anchors to read propaganda sounds chilling.
But what the actual effect on society may be if such anchors become widespread is hard to judge. If Xinhua wants someone to read the news without questioning it they don’t need AI to make that happen. Meanwhile, synthetic characters are slowly finding their way into mainstream culture, with figures like virtual pop star Hatsune Miku and CGI Instagram models familiarizing the public with this sort of creation.
But while these examples fall clearly into the world of entertainment, having AI anchors read the news suggests the technology could become more than a novelty.