Are robots the journalists of the future? - Reuters News Agency

Are robots the journalists of the future?

In Reuters Institute’s trends and predictions study, researchers found that robots might be yet another step closer to making human reporters obsolete.

By Sandra Sparrowhawk | Apr 18, 2019

It is no mystery that publications all over the world are beginning to implement automated machine learning tools for content. In fact, 72 percent of 194 leading editors, CEOs and digital leaders surveyed in this year’s Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2019 report revealed plans to experiment with artificial intelligence (AI) in the near future.

Yet, while most automated machine tools merely assist reporters in their daily work, for instance, by providing first drafts and templates for articles – hence, posing little threat to the everyday reporter’s livelihood -, the newest trend on the horizon might prove just a step too far for comfort: Virtual newsreaders.

While the concept around virtual news hosts is being developed predominantly in Asia, it is, without a doubt, a remarkable step towards making existing processes quicker and more efficient and incorporating more AI technologies in media.

So, if successful, could these robots prove a real hazard to journalists around the globe in the years to come?

Let’s take a closer look.

Tes, can you confirm if this image is okay? There’s no hyperlink in the document. Source: Reuters Connect

Investment in robo-journalism on the rise in Asia

In November 2018, China’s state news outlet Xinhua announced that it had, in collaboration with tech firm Sogou, developed Qiu Hao – the world’s first male AI news anchor.

The Chinese public was greeted with a digital version of real-life Xinhua news reporter Qu Meng during the nation’s renowned World Internet Conference. The news host, sporting a pin-striped suit topped with a red tie, mimicked human facial expressions and mannerisms, nodding and even blinking while moving his lips – virtually – in sync with the spoken words.

“Not only can I accompany you 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I can be endlessly copied and present at different scenes to bring you the news,” Qiu said in his first address to the public.

A mere three months later, Xinhua unveiled the digital presenter’s female – and much improved – counterpart: Xin Xiaomeng.

In a similar move, Japan’s national public broadcaster NHK has created anime news anchors, such as Yomiko, a friendly-looking AI cartoon, that can sign news for individuals with hearing impairments, and even co-anchor the main evening news bulletin.

So, will AI replace humanity in the near future?

To find the answer to that question, we must first analyse the three technologies used to support Qiu Hao.

In a first step, Xinhua collected and synthesised samples of human voices.

Secondly, the firm repeated the process with human muscle movement samples.

In a last step, the voices and movements were merged so that when the artificial news host reads texts, the micro-electric motors behind his face move in a way to make his mannerism appear human.

In order to imitate a human’s voice, the AI developer needs to amass tens of thousands of pieces of pronunciations and break every word into single-phonetic elements for the robot to learn and read.

To make the AI imitate facial movements, a whole 53 human facial muscles have to be analysed in order to generate a model set for the AI anchor.

While both those technologies are now fully mature, it is the last step that is proving to be the real obstacle. Developers are having a hard time matching the AI’s spoken words with the appropriate facial expressions that are then meant to correspond with the content’s general mood.

For instance, the word “funny” can refer to both, a humorous situation, or one that doesn’t quite line up. At present, however, Qiu is unable to analyse the two meanings of the word and react accordingly.

So, how would AI reporters interview a real human being? The short answer is, they wouldn’t. Not yet, anyway.

But, while AI might not yet be able to fully erase human broadcasters – and the rest of humanity – journalists should already begin honing their skills to counter the job threat robots could very well pose in the future should step 3 reach its desired maturity.

Earlier this year, Xinhua revealed that, in addition to Xin, it has now developed an improved AI male presenter called Xin Xiaohao that comes with more natural mouth movements, is able to gesticulate and even stand up.

So, the question remains, if it takes developers a mere three months to make significant improvements within the technology, how long will it take AI to wipe us out entirely?