Its delivery robotic and at times comical, the world's first AI news anchor undoubtedly left a few of his human counterparts feeling the uncomfortable creep of impending obsolescence.
"This is my very first day at Xinhua News Agency," declared the sharply dressed 'man' in synthesized prose. "I look forward to bringing you the brand new news experiences."
More virtual puppet than traditional CGI animation, the digital anchor was modeled after real-life anchor Zhang Zhao and designed jointly with the Chinese search engine company Sogou.com. He was unveiled by China's state-run Xinhua News Agency at the World Internet Conference, hailed as having "endless prospects" and signaling China's public push into the brave new world of machine learning.
Windows Into the Future
On the surface, human news deliverers were not convinced.
The BBC was quick to undercut the AI anchor's crude and unnatural appearance, with actual news presenter Simon McCoy actually bursting out in laughter while reading Xinhua's lofty claims, as if to prove the point. The Washington Post, meanwhile, felt compelled to remind its readers the AI news reader remained "devoid of decision making and processing skills and cannot offer the emotional element given by a real journalist."
"It's quite difficult to watch for more than a few minutes," declared Michael Wooldridge from the University of Oxford. "If you're just looking at animation you've completely lost that connection to an anchor."
Beneath the surface, however, one gets a sense of severe hand-wringing as journalists wonder how to compete with something that, according to Xinhua, "can work 24 hours a day on its official website and various social media platforms, reducing news production costs and improving efficiency."
AI technology is already being used to produce automatically generated text for breaking news events concerning elections, quarterly results, and the Olympics. But it's larger than just the news.
Synthetic characters like virtual pop star Hatsune Miku and CGI Instagram models continue to seep into mainstream entertainment culture. And closer to home, you might want to check out Amy Winehouse's 2019 Hologram tour. The deceased Diva will be beamed on stage belting out her classics, backed by a live band. This will mark BASE Hologram's third such event following worldwide tours for fellow departed music legends Roy Orbison and Maria Callas.
Rise of the Machines
Given the rapid pace at which the technology is improving, focusing on the technology's current cosmetic limitations seems like a gross miscalculation of what AI will mean for our collective futures. If creative careers like reporting the evening news or performing a song can be fully automated and digitally reproduced, what makes the rest of our jobs safe?
Just like what is happening with animated films and video games, there may come a day where AI news anchors will be indistinguishable from real humans. And if digital news anchors become the new norm, could digital pastors be next? Imagine an AI with the ability to create a sermon by algorithm. A realistic hologram delivers the perfectly crafted words beautifully. Would people attend a church led by a digital preacher? Could we reach a point where congregants can't even tell the difference?
Are we truly ready to live in a world where AI composites deliver everything from the evening news to your Sunday sermons?
Perhaps now's the time to start asking these questions.