Th­ese news an­chors are com­pe­tent, in­tel­li­gent — but they’re not hu­man

The Washington Post - - ECONOMY & BUSINESS - BY TAY­LOR TELFORD

The new an­chors at China’s state-run news agency have per­fect hair and no pulse.

Ear­lier this week, at the World In­ter­net Con­fer­ence in China’s Zhe­jiang prov­ince, Xin­hua News Agency un­veiled what it is call­ing the world’s first ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence news an­chors. From the out­side, they are al­most in­dis­tin­guish­able from their hu­man coun­ter­parts, crisp-suited and even-keeled. Al­though Xin­hua says the an­chors have the “voice, fa­cial ex­pres­sions and ac­tions of a real per­son,” the ro­botic an­chors re­lay what­ever text is fed to them in stilted speech that sounds less hu­man than Siri or Alexa.

“I will work tire­lessly to keep you in­formed as texts will be typed into my sys­tem un­in­ter­rupted,” the English-speak­ing ver­sion says in its de­but video.

De­vel­oped jointly by Xin­hua News and Chi­nese search-en­gine com­pany So­gou.com, the an­chors learn from live broad­cast­ing videos and so­cial me­dia, and can work “24 hours a day.” The ro­bots are sup­posed to help cut costs and im­prove ef­fi­ciency, but their pres­ence in the me­dia land­scape — marked by lim­ited press free­dom and tightly con­trolled In­ter­net — raises many ques­tions about the qual­ity of in­for­ma­tion Chi­nese cit­i­zens are given by their gov­ern­ment.

The AI an­chors are both mod­eled on real jour­nal­ists at the agency, Qiu Hao and Zhang Zhao, and they per­form ba­sic hu­man ex­pres­sions like blink­ing and rais­ing their eye­brows. They can be “end­lessly copied,” ac­cord­ing to the de­but video, and are thus able to cover sto­ries in mul­ti­ple lo­ca­tions at once.

The lack of hu­man touch with Xin­hua’s AI an­chors is un­likely to cause much of a stir, said jour­nal­ist and vet­eran China ob­server Isaac Stone Fish. Xin­hua is an or­ga­ni­za­tion that dis­penses gov­ern­ment news re­leases and gives the pub­lic the gov­ern­ment and party’s per­spec­tive on cer­tain is­sues, Fish said, so get­ting news from ro­bots is “not that dif­fer­ent.”

“It’s just an­other way for Bei­jing to suck the blood out of jour­nal­ism,” Fish said.

This is not the first time Chi­nese me­dia has in­te­grated ro­bots into its cov­er­age. In 2016, news sta­tion Dragon TV started us­ing an AI-pow­ered chat­bot for its weather re­port­ing.

Xin­hua News’s English Twit­ter al­ready shows the English­s­peak­ing AI an­chor in ac­tion, cov­er­ing sto­ries about a mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tion at the World In­ter­net Con­fer­ence and China’s plans to con­duct a Mars ex­plo­ration in 2020. Then, Fri­day morn­ing, “he” even made an ap­pear­ance on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

Al­though the AI-an­chors are in­ex­haustible, they are de­void of de­ci­sion-mak­ing and pro­cess­ing skills and can­not of­fer the emo­tional ele­ment given by a real jour­nal­ist. In an in­ter­view with jie­man.com, the head of So­gou, Wang Xiaochuan, con­ceded that the an­chors’ abil­i­ties to com­pete with deeper-level hu­man func­tions are min­i­mal. But they learn fast, Wang said, re­quir­ing only 10 min­utes of data to ef­fec­tively mimic a per­son’s voice. Even so, the an­chors them­selves have said they have a long way to go.

“As an AI news an­chor un­der devel­op­ment, I know there is a lot for me to im­prove,” the English-speak­ing an­chor said in his first sign-off.

NI­CO­LAS ASFOURI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

China’s state-run news agency has un­veiled the first ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence news an­chors.

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