China’s VR news anchor is here and able to deliver the news 24/7 in a professional manner.
The well-dressed VR anchor, based on a real-life Xinhua state news anchor named Zhang Zhao, gets its data from a non-stop stream of information typed into his system. The AI then reads the data and manipulates the VR anchor with facial expressions such as raising eyebrows, blinking, and small head movements, that makes the anchor seem more realistic.
There is also a Chinese-speaking version based on a different news anchor.
The goal is to create a digital anchor that will remain poised during a live broadcast and increase overall efficient. In an introduction video created by the news agency, the virtual anchor boldly states, “I will work tirelessly to keep you informed as texts will be typed into my system uninterrupted,” and continues, “I look forward to bringing you brand new news experience.”
This evolution in news broadcasting comes from a partnership with Xinhua News and the Chinese search engine company Sogou, who worked together to create a personality that is able to learn via broadcasting videos and social media.
Because the VR anchor is a computer program, he can be easily copied and used for other news purposes, and even be in multiple locations at the same time, providing news updates on multiple stories.
Does this mean your favorite news anchor could be out of a job? It’s possible, but at this point there are no actual plans to utilize the VR anchor on-air. Well, not yet – but switching to an AI powered VR news anchor would also mean missing out on hard reporting that pushes the story further, fun banter between anchors, and of course any awkward (but very funny) news bloopers.
New programs would effectively loose their humanity; which is why you may never see these AI reporters come to life on television.
In an interview with VRScout, Paola Paulino, President of the Shenzhen VRAR Association expressed excitement about the potential of what an AI powered VR anchor could do. But, like any explorer of technology, she had questions, “Are the resources of information that this AI system references, good/reliable? How does it filter information?” Paulino continues, “A part of a journalists’ job is to critically think about how and what they are reporting.”
As humans, we still like having a human touch in most things we do. This includes getting the news – especially when it’s bad news.
This presents the question of how the system would approach local reporting. “A reporter has to really be on the ground to learn about the important things happening in the community,” said Paulino. If the AI reporter covers news on an international scale then it’s more of an amplifier for existing information as opposed to a journalist that shares “new” news. “The good part about the amplification concept is that this is efficient.”
However, Isaac Stone Fish, a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society Center, talked with the Washington Post about how a lack of human touch with Xinhua’s news anchors wouldn’t be a factor, and goes on to discuss how the Xinhua news agency is one of the most aggressive media censorship regimes out there and will only deliver approved news that favors the government and party perspective. As a result, having the news delivered with a lack of human touch is “not that different.”
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) November 7, 2018
He goes on to say, “It’s just another way for Beijing to suck the blood out of journalism.”
According to the Xinhua news agency, this technology isn’t limited to just delivering the news, but can also be customized to meet the needs of other industries. Wang Xiaochuan, head of Sogou, mentioned a popular book reading app called Uncle Kai, saying “In the future, it could be your parents telling the story.”
Xiaochuan admits that VR anchors can’t compete with real humans. Current renditions are relatively emotionless and are only able to deliver news that is typed into their system. He does, however, say that they do have the ability to learn fast, only needing 10 minutes of data to be able to accurately mimic a person’s voice.
The President of the Shenzhen VRAR Association ends her conversation with VRScout stating, “I can see a lot of people giving up to that type of agency because we have limited time to consume information, which also forces me to think about the cool things we learn when we are presented with news stories outside our personalized chambers.”
Xinhua’s VR anchor has definitely stirred up some excitement, but it has also raised some very important questions. Are audiences ready for your news to be delivered through an AI? are you willing to swap out some humanity for convenience?
Things to think about. In the meantime, don’t worry. Your favorite news anchor is still safe. For now…
Image Credit: China Xinhua News / BBC