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If a Robot Read the News, Would You Notice a Difference?

The Chinese government thinks not. Is this the way of the future?

Xinhua News unveiled its robotic news readers recently, claiming that they can “read texts as naturally as a professional news anchor:

The agency points out that they may be particularly useful for disseminating breaking news reports in a timely manner.

An artificial intelligence (AI) system has been used to synthesise the presenters’ voices, lip movements and expressions. They are based on those of real Xinhua presenters.

This is different from using a 3D digital model of a human. It appears that photo-like facial features have been applied to a body template and animated.

Chris Baraniuk, “China’s Xinhua agency unveils AI news presenter” at BBC

Noel Sharkey, emeritus professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield told the BBC that it was a “good first effort”, but warned that even an improved version “could be very dull.” From a different perspective, computer scientist Michael Woodridge described the automaton as stuck in the “uncanny valley.”

The uncanny valley is “our strange revulsion toward things that appear nearly human, but not quite right,” for example some robots and computer animations*.

Rob Schwarz offers some uncanny examples at Stranger Dimensions. Here’s Saya, the reception robot:

Uncanny or not, some see the trend toward “robo journalism” as bound to spread to the West:

Humans do a pretty good job of getting the news out there as events are happening, but there are times when news teams aren’t fast enough in their coverage — especially in today’s rapid-fire consumption of content and the importance of the Zero Moment of Truth. AI technology can come in by shortening the time that news stories are reported and delivered. Cassandra Reynolds, “Is AI the future of news media?” at TechTalks

Is that likely? Predictions about the success of robotics most often fail because the forecasters confuse advances in technology with advances that meet recognized needs. The robo-reporter won’t dominate the media of free societies because the cost of becoming a public news medium today is now down to the cost of a connection, along with (of course) the time, energy, and talent needed to acquire an audience. Further costs depend on how big the medium becomes. But all those resources already exist in abundance. Robotics offers nothing special to compete with them, not even significantly reduced costs. If anything, the control robotics offers is precisely the opposite of the environment that produces scoops, advance notice of trends, and breaking offbeat news.

Forests no longer come crashing down to put out The New York Times. All eyes are no longer glued to the Big Three at a certain hour. Many such media are having a hard time adjusting to their diminished role in the age when anyone can be well-connected. But their crisis of adjustment is not one to which artificial intelligence offers an obvious solution. If we no longer need what Walter Duranty or Dan Rather provided in the twentieth century, we probably don’t need a robotic version either. The robotic news readers of China serve a quite different purpose from the independent news outlets and commentators of the West; the robots help disseminate controlled information rather than finding and developing information.

Of course, AI products will likely help with news gathering in the future but independent producers are the most likely agents to acquire the good tools quickly and use them efficiently.

*Note: The term “uncanny valley” was coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970.

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If a Robot Read the News, Would You Notice a Difference?