Robot newscaster unsettles Russian state TV viewers

Alec Luhn

A humanoid robot has read the news on Russian state television after a high-level robotics conference, disquieting some viewers.

During a Tuesday afternoon news segment on Russia-24, the robot “Alex” informed viewers of new microfinance legislation, the agriculture ministry's 2018 results and a nuclear technology forum in Sochi. 

In an unhurried monotone, Alex also reported that Moscow authorities were searching for a homeless cat that was supposedly kicked by opposition city council candidate Ilya Yashin in a grainy video, which Mr Yashin has said is a fake. 

The final news item featured an artificial intelligence conference at Skolkovo, a tech hub meant to be the Kremlin's answer to Silicon Valley.

“I would note that the main hero of the exhibit of technological innovations was me, the robot Alex,” the futuristic news anchor said, cracking a rather gruesome attempt at a smile. 

Alex was created by the Perm-based startup Promobot, which produces service robots with computer-screen faces for state bank Sberbank, to resemble the company's founder Alexei Yuzhakov down to his facial stubble.

The humanoid can answer questions and hold a conversation based on data uploaded into its brain, while 29 motors in its silicon face allow it to mimic emotional expressions.

But not everyone appreciated these abilities. “It looks terrifying,” the Afisha Daily site said. 

“It's up to television viewers to judge how he handled his duties. Can robots replace journalists?” Russia-24 asked underneath in the YouTube version of Alex's news segment. 

Considering the comments in response, the answer seems to be no. 

"From the headpiece, I thought (actor) Dmitry Pevtsov was stung by bees and then got drunk. But it was a robot. Horrible," one viewer wrote. 

“The first few seconds only provoke a gag reflex. It's frozen with a gaze through the centuries like a drug addict's,” another wrote. “It feels like a dead thing.”

Yet another suggested that it would be “more useful” to replace the prime minister with a robot.

Russia-24 previously drew widespread ridicule when it reported on a “state-of-the-art” dancing robot at a youth forum that turned out to be a man in a costume. 

The armed forces have been developing robots like a “military cyborg” that slowly drove a four-wheeler in a circle during a demonstration for Vladimir Putin in 2015. 

Russia has also created a tank-like robot with treads and a machine gun.