China's Xinhua news agency reveals world's first AI-powered news anchor

Xinhua’s AI news anchor works 24/7, 365 days a year

China’s Xinhua news agency just launched the world’s first AI-powered news anchor. Based on a real live news anchor, the AI version reads out the news while mimicking the voice and facial expressions of a real person.  The AI news anchor can be kept busy around the clock working on Xinhua’s official website and various social media platforms.  While this is the world’s first-ever AI-powered news anchor, the project comes on the heels of a popular 2016 project when another Chinese media company rolled out a chatbot to replace its weather reporter.

Xinhua has unveiled two AI news anchors for the time being, one English-speaking and one Chinese-speaking.  The AI news anchors were developed by Xinhua News in partnership with Sogou.com, the Chinese search engine company, and debuted at the World Internet Conference in China’s Zhejiang province.  The AI news anchor has already delivered its first news stories: one about China’s planned trip to Mars in 2020, and another about trade between China and Latin America.

AI news anchors increase efficiency and cut costs

The ostensible purpose of the AI news anchors is twofold.  The first and most obvious reason is that they will drastically cut costs – after all, there’s no need to pay robots overtime.  Once the initial purchasing cost has been absorbed by a company, the AI basically pays for itself.  The second benefit of having non-human news anchors is that they will always be available in the event of a breaking news story.

And what better field to try out new AI technology than in media, which revolves around technology?  As the AI news anchor says himself, “The development of the media industry calls for continuous innovation and deep integration with the international advanced technologies.”

Will AI take our jobs?

Reactions to the AI news anchors varied, with most people agreeing that the text-to-speech is imperfect and comes across as uncanny (mind you, news anchors sound kind of uncanny anyway, in my opinion!).  In its introductory video, the technology itself admits it has a long way to go.  For now, it appears the AI news anchors are simply reading the text that’s plugged into the system, with the AI part applying only to the machine learning required to simulate the voice and facial expressions.  Alexa and Siri are arguably much more sophisticated, and it’s safe to say we have a ways to go before we see AI news anchors actually piecing together their own news.

Other viewers made sardonic comments about the irony of a robot reading the state-controlled news, along with the doubled irony of a robot replacing human jobs in the country with the world’s biggest population.  AI news anchors will have to find a way to replicate the trust that human news anchors usually build up in their role as respected public figures, especially in this era of fake news when people are on the lookout for unreliable sources.

The AI-powered news anchors do appear to be the first step towards eliminating their human counterparts.  However, there’s a silver lining.  Despite rampant fears about AI potentially causing job loss in the future, research firm Gartner predicted that while artificial intelligence would probably eliminate about 1.8 million jobs by the year 2020, it would be responsible for creating 2.3 million new ones, for a net result of 500,000 more jobs.  Of course, there will be a shift in the types of jobs: job loss will target manual labor positions, while job creation will go to positions like plugging in data to help program machine learning.  Lower- and middle-class workers might still have cause to worry.

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