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Two news anchors at China's state-run news agency aren't human

Two news anchors at China's state-run news agency aren't human
A New China News Agency English artificial-intelligence anchor made its debut at the World Internet Conference. (New China News Agency via Twitter)

The news never sleeps, and neither do the two new anchors at China's state-run news agency.

New China News Agency on Wednesday unveiled what it's calling the world's first news anchors powered by artificial intelligence, at the World Internet Conference in China's Zhejiang province. From the outside, they're almost indistinguishable from their human counterparts, crisp-suited and tidy-haired. While the agency says the anchors have the "voice, facial expressions and actions of a real person," the robotic anchors relay whatever text is fed to them in stilted speech that sounds less human than Siri or Alexa.

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"I will work tirelessly to keep you informed as texts will be typed into my system uninterrupted," the English-speaking version says in its debut video.

Developed jointly by New China News and Chinese search engine company Sogou.com, the anchors learn from live broadcasting videos and social media and can work "24 hours a day." The robots are supposed to help cut costs and improve efficiency, but their presence in the media landscape — marked by limited press freedom and tightly-controlled internet — raises many questions about quality of information Chinese citizens are given by their government.

The AI anchors are both modeled on real journalists at the agency, Qiu Hao and Zhang Zhao, and perform some basic human expressions, like blinking and raising their eyebrows. They can be "endlessly copied" according to the debut video, thus able to cover stories in multiple locations at once.

"The development of the media industry calls for continuous innovation and deep integration with the international advanced technologies," the English-speaking anchor said in its introduction video. "I look forward to bringing you brand new news experiences."

This isn't the first time Chinese media has employed robots into its coverage. In 2016, news station Dragon TV started using an AI-powered chatbot for its weather reporting.

New China News Agency's English Twitter already shows the English-speaking AI anchor in action, covering stories about a museum exhibition at the World Internet Conference and China's plans to launch a Mars exploration in 2020. Then, Friday morning, "he" even made an appearance on CNBC's Squawk Box.

Although the AI-anchors are inexhaustible, they're void of decision-making and processing skills and cannot offer the emotional element given by a real journalist. In an interview with jieman.com, Wang Xiaochuan, the head of Sogou, conceded that the anchors' abilities to compete with deeper-level human functions are minimal. But they learn fast, Xiochuan said, requiring only 10 minutes of data to effectively mimic a person's voice.

Even so, the anchors themselves have said they have a long way to go.

"As an AI news anchor under development, I know there is a lot for me to improve," the English-speaking anchor said in his first sign-off.

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