Debut of China AI Anchor
Stirs up Tech Race Debates
November 15, 2018
China’s state-run Xinhua News has debuted what it called the world’s
first artificial intelligence (AI) anchor. But the novelty has
generated more dislikes than likes online among Chinese netizens,
with many calling the new virtual host “a news-reading device
without a soul.”
Analysts say the latest creation has showcased China’s short-term
progress in voice recognition, text mining and semantic analysis,
but challenges remain ahead for its long-term ambition of becoming
an AI superpower by 2030.
Collaborating with Chinese search engine Sogou, Xinhua introduced
two AI anchors, one for English broadcasts and the other for
Chinese, both of which are based on images of the agency’s real
newscasters, Zhang Zhao and Qiu Hao respectively.
In its inaugural broadcast last week, the English-speaking anchor
was more tech cheerleader than newshound, rattling off lines few
anchors would be caught dead reading, such as: “the development of
the media industry calls for continuous innovation and deep
integration with the international advanced technologies.”
It also promised “to work tirelessly to keep you [audience] informed
as texts will be typed into my system uninterrupted” 24/7 across
multiple platforms simultaneously if necessary, according to the
Local audiences appear to be unimpressed, critiquing the news bots’
not so human touch and synthesized voices.
On Weibo, China’s Twitterlike microblogging platform, more than one
user wrote that such anchors have “no soul,” in response to Xinhua’s
announcement. And one user joked: “what if we have an AI [country]
leader?” while another questioned what it stands for in terms of
journalistic values by saying “What a nutcase. Fake news is on every
Others pondered the implication AI news bots might have on
employment and workers.
“It all comes down to production costs, which will determine if [we]
lose jobs,” one Weibo user wrote. Some argued that only low-end
labor-intensive jobs will be easily replaced by intelligent robots
while others gloated about the possibility of employers utilizing an
army of low-cost robots to make a fortune.
A simple use case
Industry experts said the digital anchor system is based on images
of real people and possibly animated parts of their mouths and
faces, with machine-learning technology recreating humanlike speech
patterns and facial movements. It then uses a synthesized voice for
the delivery of the news broadcast.
The creation showcases China’s progress in voice recognition, text
mining and semantic analysis, all of which is covered by natural
language processing, according to Liu Chien-chih, secretary-general
of Asia IoT Alliance (AIOTA).
But that’s just one of many aspects of AI technologies, he wrote in
an email to VOA.
Given the pace of experimental AI adoption by Chinese businesses,
more user scenarios or designs of user interface can be anticipated
in China, Liu added.
Chris Dong, director of China research at the market intelligence
firm IDC, agreed the digital anchor is as simple as what he calls a
“use case” for AI-powered services to attract commercials and
He said, in an email to VOA, that China has fast-tracked its big
data advantage around consumers or internet of things (IoT)
infrastructure to add commercial value.
Artificial Intelligence has also allowed China to accelerate its
digital transformation across various industries or value chains,
which are made smarter and more efficient, Dong added.
Far from a threat to the US
But both said China is far from a threat to challenge U.S.
leadership on AI given its lack of an open market and respect for
intellectual property rights (IPRs) as well as its lagging
innovative competency on core AI technologies.
Earlier, Lee Kai-fu, a well-known venture capitalist who led Google
before it pulled out of China, was quoted by news website Tech
Crunch as saying that the United States may have created Artificial
Intelligence, but China is taking the ball and running with it when
it comes to one of the world’s most pivotal technology innovations.
Lee summed up four major drivers behind his observation that China
is beating the United States in AI: abundant data, hungry
entrepreneurs, growing AI expertise and massive government support
Beijing has set a goal to become an AI superpower by 2030, and to
turn the sector into a $150 billion industry.
Yet, IDC’s Dong cast doubts on AI’s adoption rate and effectiveness
in China’s traditional sectors. Some, such as the manufacturing
sector, is worsening, he said.
said China’s “state capitalism may have its short-term efficiency
and gain, but over the longer-term, it is the open market that is
fundamental to building an effective innovation ecosystem.”
The analyst urges China to open up and include multinational
software and services to contribute to its digital economic
“China’s ‘Made-in-China 2025’ should go back to the original flavor
… no longer Made and Controlled by Chinese, but more [of] an Open
Platform of Made-in-China that both local and foreign players have a
level-playing field,” he said.
In addition to a significant gap in core technologies, China’s
failure to uphold IPRs will go against its future development of AI
software, “which is often sold many-fold in the U.S. than in China
as the Chinese tend to think intangible assets are free,” AIOTA’s