China creates AI newsreaders who can work 24 hours a day and read whatever editors type

Chris Baynes

China’s state press agency has unveiled a virtual newsreader designed to deliver headlines 24 hours a day.

Xinhua’s “artificial intelligence news anchor” is a lifelike digitised reporter which can read out text by mimicking the image and voice of a real human presenter.

The agency claims the virtual presenter – a realistic-looking man, sharply dressed in a suit – “can read texts as naturally as a professional news anchor”.

However, the AI newsreader’s debut report on Thursday revealed a robotic voice and awkward delivery.

“Hello, you are watching English news programme. I’m AI anchor in Beijing,” the presenter said at the beginning of its first English-language broadcast.

The AI anchor has been modelled on Zhang Zhao, a human Xinhua presenter, and will read out scripts fed to it by writers.

In an introductory video, it said: “I will work tirelessly to keep you informed as texts will be typed into my system uninterrupted.”

The technology synthesises the human presenter's speech, lip movements and facial expressions. It was developed jointly by Xinhua and Chinese search engine Sogou.

The companies have developed a second anchor, modelled on a different human presenter, to read headlines in Chinese.

Xinhua said the robotic anchors “can work 24 hours a day on its official website and various social media platforms, reducing news production costs and improving efficiency”.

The agency said the technology could be particularly useful for breaking news.

But Michael Wooldridge, professor of computer science at the University of Oxford, said the AI anchor was “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,” he told the BBC.