China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency unveiled a deeply creepy artificial intelligence news anchor on Wednesday at the government’s World Internet Conference tech expo. The AI newscaster is a pure virtual mouthpiece in a country with tight controls on press freedom, and its first report this week featuring fawning coverage of China’s trade show felt distinctly dystopian.
“I will work tirelessly to keep you informed as texts will be typed into my system uninterrupted,” the AI anchor said in its debut video at the conference.
The virtual anchor’s features are based on those of a real-life Xinhua host named Zhang Zhao. But as with most attempts at computer-generated humanity, the virtual anchor is both impressively realistic and yet unsettlingly soulless. Its limited range of motion and expressions becomes repetitive after a short time, while its gray crisp suit and perfectly coiffed hair are even more rigid than human cable news hosts. The AI anchor’s voice is unmistakably robotic, too, mispronouncing words such as “Panama” and getting the space between words slightly off ― akin to hearing the news from an Alexa virtual assistant or a car’s GPS.
But Xinhua appears to know that the anchor is a work in progress, as the AI’s sign-off message on its first report emphasized.
“As an AI news anchor under development, I know there is a lot for me to improve. Thank you,” it said.
Xinhua AI anchor, launched on Wednesday, starts presenting news reports from Thursday. In this program, he takes you to have a look at what a Panama official and the Chinese businessman Jack Ma say about the ongoing #CIIE. pic.twitter.com/OZkRQtv1sQ
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) November 8, 2018
Xinhua built the AI with China’s Sogou search engine and stated in a report that it will allow the news agency to have 24-hour news coverage while cutting down on production costs. Xinhua started using the AI anchor in its broadcast Thursday as well as in a separate Chinese-language version modeled on another presenter.
Although other countries have toyed with animated or even robot newscasters, Xinhua claims this is the world’s first AI news anchor that has the capability to improve itself over time through machine learning.
Newsrooms have increasingly implemented AI technology in recent years, with outlets including The Washington Post using AI to write short reports on such topics as the outcome of sporting events or to send news alerts.
Xinhua didn’t immediately return HuffPost’s request for comment on what its long-term plans are for the AI anchor or what it means for the news agency’s staff, including the actual human presenter it’s modeled after.