Artificial sincerity, too?

The AI anchors of Xinhua TV

by Andrew Cochran
May 4, 2019

last updated October, 2019

The idea of an AI presenter was once parodied on television. A 1980’s UK production known as Max Headroom featured a computer-generated figure known for his sarcasm and digital stutter. Not quite 30 years later, AI-powered personalities are at work on television, presenting the news-of-state in China. It’s serious — no stuttering here, at least not on purpose. And if a stutter were to happen, no doubt there’d be a swift software upgrade. The bigger question: can there be an upgrade for sincerity, too?

They are the world’s first AI-enabled news presenters. They became their virtual selves thanks to development by Sogou, China’s second-largest search engine company. Sogou collaborated with Xinhua News Agency, the state-run press agency and China’s largest media organization. In a prepared statement, Sogou says their technology can ‘revolutionize’ human-computer interactions.

Sogou has deep pockets for deep learning. In 2017 the company raised US$585 million on the New York Stock Exchange to advance their work in AI. Their largest shareholder is one of China’s foremost tech companies, Tencent, among other things the world’s biggest games company.

More than the news is on TV. The Sogou figures show AI technology at work in a country where AI advances are government policy. China has set a goal of being the world leader in AI technologies by 2030.

Television news as a testing ground

Television is an interesting place to start. TV newscasts are high profile. They also are substantially the same around the world, making export possibilities easier. The newcast format follows fixed conventions from beginning to end, as if following silent rules. The most important stories of the day roll out in order of their ‘news value’, amplified with details from reporters. We’ve already seen AI excel in orderly environments, witness chess, poker, and GO. TV news stories may be different every day, but their presentation is remarkably routine, nation after nation. It’s fertile ground for AI.

A news program can be thought of like a freight train. The engine is the news brand. A series of train cars is assembled each day, the cargo for each the changes of the day. They are connected by one or two presenters, coupling one piece to the next. They’re even called ‘anchors’ for their stabilizing effect.

The role of anchor crucially bridges stories and audience. The presenters are there to connect with viewers and make the aggregated changes-of-the-day easier to absorb. Having the news presented by non-humans would seem negate the comforting effect. But does it?

The answer may hinge on whether sincerity can be a science. The secret sauce of a news anchor is their trustworthiness. It lives in some and not in others. Successful news anchors have ‘it,’ and less successful ones don’t. It takes more than a favourable face ratio and appropriate demeanour. They must be believable.

The Sogou method

This is where Sogou’s approach is intriguing. Inventing a new life-like form requires determining its DNA. Male or female? Tall, short, or in-between? Complexion? Hair colour and style? Voice? Mannerisms? When ‘human’ is synthetic, how do you decide?

Sogou ‘casts’ their AI figures by replicating real people. Each is a well-known personality. In this case, they are existing anchors on Xinhua TV. Copying from real humans solves identity questions and, maybe, attaches an essential intangible: familiarity for the audience. Might it include built-in believability? As with human anchors, it will be up to the audience over time. Public opinion sampling in China has many variables. It is hard to imagine we’ll know.

Two plus one

The first two AI anchors were unveiled in November 2018. It was a celebrated event, an occasion at the World Internet Conference, a high-profile annual event in China that the Guardian calls ‘China’s Davos for the tech sector‘. Both figures replicated male anchors on Xinhua. One of them is programmed to speak in English.

In a hand-out video, the English-speaking figure said he could ‘work tirelessly’ to present the news. Xinhua said in an accompanying statement they would be using the AI figures for ‘reducing news production costs and improving efficiency’. 

YouTube link to a text-on-video report by South China Morning Post, November 2018
(may be preceded by a commercial)

A third AI figure, modelled on a female anchor at the network, was announced by Xinhua three months later. Shortly after, she reported from another high-profile event, the Two Sessions conference, the annual gathering of Chinese leadership similar in prominence to a sitting of parliament.

YouTube link to video from New China TV

The technology

The science behind the AI figures is not clear, even whether they are computer-generated images or a form of robotics. One report, from The Verge, suggests they are digital video composites. Another account, from China Daily/Asia News Network, quotes an AI professor describing how they use ‘micro-electric motors’, suggesting a more mechanized approach.

Handout materials from the company say it integrates ‘advanced image detection and prediction capabilities’ with speech synthesis, ‘which allow the virtual anchor to broadcast text inputs in real-time’. There is no mention of presentation methods.

Either way, the AI figures are fully programable. As anyone who has been on television knows, ‘being yourself’ in front of an audience is not always easy. Humans sometimes use talent coaches, specialists who help news anchors and business executives present themselves more naturally in front of the camera. One of the techniques is using gestures while speaking. It can take several sessions to get it right. With the Sogou anchors, it only took a tweak in software. The following video shows progress three months after the first version.

YouTube New China TV

Is imitation really the sincerest form of flattery?

There are several implications of AI replicated anchors. Are subjects entitled to compensation for using their likeness? Does having an indefatigable replica provide value to the human anchor? On the one hand, an AI replica can be on-air while its human counterpart is on assignment or vacation; it offers the human TV personality the means to have a higher profile. On the other, the AI figure will say anything it is given. It could include things their human counterparts might find unpalatable.

AI figure Xin Xiaomeng (left) and Xinhua anchor Qu Meng (right)

Then there are the legal issues. In the west, there is a nascent law of personality, where concepts of ownership pivot on the extent there is a distinctive personality to begin with. Is having a digital copy de facto proof personality rights exist? Copyright law revolves around tests for originality, expression, and use. In privacy law, there is a ‘right to be forgotten.’ Could the future present a right not to be replicated? And in patents, The Supreme Court of Canada determined in 2002 that a higher life form cannot be patented. That case involved a transgenic mouse. What about a copied human? If you had a digital twin, who would own it?

A threat to human anchors?

Much more tangible is what this means for job security. Many human news anchors read from text that’s been written for them. Directions may be from a producer in the control room. An AI figure that makes no mistakes and has no limits on how long it can work could be a competitor for the job. One of the human anchors on Xinhua, who was replicated as an AI anchor, has been thinking about what it means for him. In the following report from South China Morning Post, he says his strengths are presenting ‘richer emotions and a more realistic human voice.’

YouTube link to text-on-video report by South China Morning Post, November 2018
(may be preceded by a commercial)

Sogou says their news figures could be forerunners of more AI-generated characters. They foresee artificial figures in education, medicine, and law.

‘Vocational avatars’

Sogou has since announced two additional AI anchors and three more AI characters. One is an AI anchor for television in Dubai. The second is also an anchor figure, for Russian TV. Both are modelled on known personalities; both are trajectory points in the evolution of this new form.

Joining them is an online judge, part of China’s internet court system. Also part of the growing ensemble are two authors of storybooks, again replicating human counterparts. Sogou refers to them all as ‘vocational avatars.’

They are a cohort unlike any we’ve seen before. There certainly will be more, behaving at their avuncular best. Will we feel more comfortable?

Links in this article (in the order embedded above)

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