Posted by: structureofnews | November 12, 2018

Less Wooden

Chinese AI.pngRemember the old joke about the 1960s British Thunderbirds puppet TV series?  “The show’s good but the acting is kind of wooden?”  OK, so you probably didn’t.  Anyway, the joke was that the characters were played by puppets, so they were a little wooden… oh, never mind.

Fast forward to today, and Chinese news agency Xinhua has just unveiled a news anchor that’s – well, not a puppet, but certainly not human.  As Xinhua notes:

The news anchor, based on the latest AI technology, has a male image with a voice, facial expressions and actions of a real person. “He” learns from live broadcasting videos by himself and can read texts as naturally as a professional news anchor.

The AI news anchor was jointly developed by Xinhua News Agency, the official state-run media outlet of China, and Chinese search engine company

The new newsperson got a lot of coverage – here, here, and here for example, but the reviews haven’t been kind.  The BBC quoted an Oxford professor:

The presenter struggled to appear completely natural, said Michael Wooldridge at the University of Oxford.

It was stuck somewhat in the “uncanny valley” – a term used to describe human-like robots and avatars which seem subtly unrealistic.

“It’s quite difficult to watch for more than a few minutes. It’s very flat, very single-paced, it’s not got rhythm, pace or emphasis,” Prof Wooldridge told the BBC.

He also pointed out that human news presenters have traditionally – in many cases – become highly trusted public figures.

“If you’re just looking at animation you’ve completely lost that connection to an anchor,” he added.

And India’s Scroll piled on:

Although the virtual anchor’s features are based on a real-life Xinhua host, Zhang Zhao, his voice remains robotic and detached.

But in some ways, everyone is asking the wrong question.  Xinhua is suggesting the technology can be used to reduce costs – and it probably can.  Everyone else is talking about how it compares to a real human – and it’s honestly pretty wooden.  But isn’t the real question what it can enable news organizations to do differently?

So, sure a human being is more emotive and makes better human connections with other humans.  Duh.  But a human being can’t give hundreds of thousands of individuals a personalized newscast, or provide one on demand with the latest stories.  Think of how Alexa and other personal digital assistants already manage to provide voice-activated spoken news bulletins, and expand that idea to video news.  Imagine if you could have a dialogue with that virtual news anchor instead of simply passively watching the show.

So, yes, this particular avatar is pretty wooden (although the visuals are pretty damn good) and is unlikely to displace a human being anytime soon.  But the failure here isn’t in the quality of our technology – it’s in our imagination to come up with ways that it can benefit our mission, and more importantly, how it can help the public and the people we serve.


  1. […] Algorithms influence what news and information we see, how financial markets behave, where police put their resources, whether we can get loans and at what price, and much more.  And beyond that, they have to power – as do other automations – to reshape how we build and structure our world, beyond replacing humans. […]

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