Earlier this week, a couple of robots made news (again). China’s state news agency Xinhua unveiled the world’s first AI news anchor at the recently concluded World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, China (a Davos-like gathering for global tech outfits and thinkers). The effort was a result of a collaboration between the news agency and Sugou, China’s foremost search engine. The presentation introduced two videos of AI news anchors, one in Chinese and one in English. Both were versions based on real news anchors.
The Chinese-speaking AI anchor was based on Xinhua’s regular news anchor and stated: “Not only can I accompany you 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I can be endlessly copied and present at different scenes to bring you the news.”
The English-speaking AI anchor was also based on Xinhua’s regular news anchor, who presented the news of the day, signing off with this message, “As an AI news anchor under development, I know there is a lot for me to improve.”
The anchors were developed through machine learning, to simulate the voice, facial expressions and other movements of the real-life anchors to exhibit a more “life-like appearance”.
According to Xinhua, “he” has become a member of its reporting team and can work 24 hours a day on its official website and various social media platforms, reducing news production costs and improving efficiency.
Media outfits had different takes to this unveiling. While outfits like The Guardian pondered over the possibility of an even more controlled and censored news coverage in China, CNN news expounded on the already existing automated reporting that has replaced real-time journalists. The BBC interviewed academic experts who called the virtual news anchors stuck in “uncanny valley”, a term used to describe human-like robots that are subtly unrealistic.
One of the most pertinent, lingering questions that rise every time a new AI enabled system appears is this – will it replace human jobs?
Technological and industrial evolution generally means a more cost-effective, efficient, less time-consuming methods of doing a job. In the media space, for example, the method of production of news has undergone tremendous, revolutionary changes over the years since the Gutenberg press was launched. The move from print to digital meant the loss of a number of technical jobs, as teams became smaller. AI now, seemingly, as some outfits like to claim, poses a similar “threat”.
But can AI really replace us?
In an interview, Sogou’s chairman, Wang Xiaochuan explained that the AI technology they have developed enables “perceptual technology” to function smoothly, and not so much the “cognitive technology yet.”
Sounds complicated? This might help explain things.
“AI technology is divided into perceptual technology and cognitive technology. Perception is sound, there are images, in the direction of perception technology, the machine basically has the opportunity to be as good as people. However, in the direction of cognitive technology, the reasoning, knowledge, and thinking behind the machine, the logical thing with language as the core, the processing power of the machine is limited. In this case, when it comes to people’s advanced activities, the machine can’t do it now,” he said.
What this essentially means is that so far, that while the technology of “machine learning” allows the system to learn a task without being programmed, it is still not advanced enough to completely analyze, think, reflect, and most importantly, form an opinion. The job of a news anchor is to report a piece of news, usually reading out from a ready-made script, written by humans. A known face is important because it lends trust in the news. The AI news anchor, modeled on a real news anchor lends that air of familiarity while reading out a ready-made script and as mentioned by the news agency, can “tirelessly” broadcast news on different platforms 24×7. But you cannot expect the same virtual system to analyze or opine or grill an interviewee on a subject. Not yet.
Expert opinion pieces in The Guardian and The Conversation blame a sensationalized, little-educated, time-crunched media for the incorrect discourse on the subject. Recall the media frenzy over two bots going “out of control” speaking “their own language”.
The subject of AI is vast and we are still learning the ropes, it is unfair to jump to such predictions. AI is not taking us over; not yet. Unless we are delving into fiction.