China’s official state media, Xinhua News Agency, has added artificial intelligence anchors to its news team through a partnership with Chinese search engine Sogou. The AI anchors are created using machine learning to program speech and facial movements which accurately imitate real humans, and they are programmed to read out anything entered into their system. One of the characters used in the newscasts is based on a real human anchor currently working for the agency, Zhang Zhao.
The AI anchors have already been launched on Xinhua’s official website, social media platforms, apps, and online streaming TV with broadcasts in both English and Chinese. One of the goals stated for the technology is to continue advancing the field of global AI synthesis so that even broader applications will be possible. As another goal, the agency has promoted the move towards AI broadcasting as a function of efficiency with 24-hour availability for newscasting without added personnel cost.
Xinhua’s English AI anchor. | Credit: Xinhua News Agency
The technology is very similar to the “Deep Fake” image processing software, another AI creation which synthesizes facial features to generate realistic videos. It has been infamously used to create celebrity videos and pornography over the years, but other legitimate purposes such as game design and filmmaking are the real drivers of its development. Serious efforts are being made towards detecting fake videos for legitimate ones, and it can be expected to be an ongoing battle as both sides struggle to keep up with the other.
Xinhua’s Chinese AI anchor, one real, one AI. | Credit: Xinhua News Agency
While the march towards integrating technology with daily life in new ways is welcome in many arenas, the decision to use AI for Chinese state media purposes has been met with resistance. In the 2018 World Press Freedom Index maintained by the organization Reporters Without Borders, China is ranked in the bottom 5 out of 180 countries, the lower numbers being the least free. According to the organization’s feature page on China’s media summary, this low rank is due to an oppressive “new international media order” being promoted by President Xi Jinping to bring all media outlets under the state’s Communist Party’s close control.
Reporters Without Borders also cites China’s tough Internet regulations which threaten the public with jail time for comments and posts shared on social media that are not compliant with state laws. Given the state of Chinese media, critics of the AI anchors argue they function as propaganda “puppets” rather than a move towards efficiency. Since the anchors report text as provided without any additional human oversight, this new technology is seen to enhance the state’s existing tool belt against free thought.