Chinese state-owned news agency Xihua has officially added AI-powered news anchors to its cast. These anchors are based on existing flesh-and-blood news staffers, mimicking both their looks and their voice, but are powered by AI text-to-speech and natural language processing technologies, among other bits of AI magic. One of the biggest magic tricks is using machine learning to analyze footage of the anchors they're based on speaking, then mimic their mannerisms, lip movement and delivery based on the text they're reading, as seen in the video below, featuring an AI anchor based on Xinhua staffer Zhang Zhao. The AI composite anchors, as they're being called, will be working alongside their human counterparts to allow live news reporting on a 24/7 basis, and can be found on most of Xinhua's web presences in both English and Chinese.
Background: This development was pioneered in concert with Sogou, a search engine company out of Beijing. As can be seen in the video, the computer-generated, photorealistic rendering of Zhao moves and talks in a convincing manner, and the AI-generated voice, aside from the obvious robotic inflection common in text-to-speech software, sounds very human. The visual aspect is not a pre-made 3D model, but rather a recreation of the anchor using computer vision AI software akin to what powers Google's DeepDream program. This explains the photorealistic texturing and the convincing movement; rather than a human skinning and skeletonizing a 3D model, the AI software does all the work in a much more detailed manner, producing a result that's arguably beyond what would be feasible for a human to put in the work to produce. The software analyzes its assigned anchor in-depth, then patches together all of its visual data into a cohesive image that mimics the anchor's movements and other quirks. Taken together, these parts form a whole that very strongly resembles the human anchor, thus the "composite" part of the name.
Impact: For now, this particular advancement does not seem to be a threat to existing news anchors' jobs, though it has affected job prospects for would-be nighttime anchors. Rather than hiring and training new anchors, the composite anchors allow Xinhua to continue serving its users a mostly intact version of familiar daytime personalities. These anchors are somewhat limited in their capabilities; for obvious reasons, they can't do fieldwork or conduct non-virtual interviews, nor can they serve as a public face for their news agency during events, building tours, and other face-to-face engagements. While it's for a completely different purpose, there is a technology making a slow rise that could solve that part of the problem. A company called KinkySDollS recently made headlines when a planned robot brothel in Houston got blocked by permitting woes, and that company's not the only one working on realistic human-based automatons. Should these bots reach a sufficient level of AI-based autonomy, along with a sufficient level of mobility, as seen in a recent video from Boston Dynamics that showed a bipedal robot doing parkour, it's quite possible that AI-created public workers could become a thing. Such a development would go far beyond news anchors, though it's not hyperbole at this point to say that we're nowhere near the kind of realistic, emotional androids depicted in science fiction.