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What’s the deal with China’s new AI news anchor?

If you thought that Fox News is as scary as news channels can get, you better think again. Earlier this month, Chinese news agency Xinhua aired its (and the world’s) first ‘AI’ news anchor, a digital version of real-world Xinhua news anchor Qiu Hao. “This is my very first day at Xinhua News Agency,” declared the impeccably dressed artificial news anchor, who then congratulated himself for his ability to “tirelessly” deliver news, in both English and Chinese, 24/7. But as viewers across China, as well as around the world, eye Digital Hao with awe, some have already questioned whether he truly constitutes an AI breakthrough and whether his emergence means good or bad news for the world of media.

Xinhua’s anchor was developed through machine learning that imitates the voice, facial expressions and gestures of real-life broadcasters in order to forge what the company defines as “a lifelike image instead of a cold robot.” Yet despite Xinhua’s best efforts to simulate an actual human, many complain that the viewing experience of the ‘AI’ anchor isn’t so pleasing due to his flat, arrhythmic, and monotonic delivery.

His questionable imitation of human expression isn’t the digital anchor’s only problem. As pointed out by Will Knight, a senior editor for AI at MIT Technology Review, Xinhua’s virtual anchor is hardly an example of true AI. Knight argues that while machine learning enabled the news agency to come very close to flawlessly mimicking a real-life news persona, they still must feed the text to his virtual alter ego. “We should… always be really careful I think about the use of the term AI, and in this context you don’t want to suggest that this anchor is actually exhibiting any intelligence, because it’s not, it’s just like a kind of very sophisticated digital puppet,” Knight said to CNBC, “What actually creates those images and the movement of the lips and the voice of this anchor is using algorithms that are related to artificial intelligence. But to call this an AI anchor is slightly overselling it.”

Other than misrepresenting the field of AI and diverting the public further away from the true core and purpose of its research, Xinhua’s brand of virtual news anchors risks diminishing the quality of the news itself, seeing as the ‘person’ delivering them is incapable of intelligent analysis. Seeing as most media and news agencies adhere to some worldview, their anchors often deliver the content through the filter of their socio-political affiliation. And while this practice flavours news with a considerable degree of bias, it also helps the viewer engage in a more profound analysis of the events, as opposed to mindlessly digesting them as passive consumers of information.

News anchors draw our focus to particular issues as they surface and shed light on aspects of them we wouldn’t otherwise consider; they have the power to humanise stories and situate them within a broader context. But Digital Hao and his fellow virtualites stifle this type of analysis of news and essentially grant those behind the scenes who feed them the information absolute power over crafting the content viewers are exposed to without owing to the responsibility of actually delivering it. Then again, for the Chinese Communist Party this is of course a desirable outcome. And although in the West freedom of speech is still not as brutally infringed upon as in China, we’d be foolish to think that there aren’t characters in power here who are drooling at the thought of gaining full control over our intake of news.

Knight and his fellows bash Xinhua’s virtual anchor for being a sham AI, incapable of real intelligence and a servant of autocrats who wish to limit any type of unwanted analysis of the news. While their claims are legit, wouldn’t the alternative be even more terrifying? What if we finally managed to manufacture a computer programme actually capable of intelligently analysing written text and such technology was utilised to deliver news to the masses? Could true AI news anchors be trusted to exercise sound judgement, honesty and transparency as they narrate our societies’ stories? This may still be far down the road, but it is safe to predict that a digital ‘24/7’ Jeanine Pirro would mark the beginning of the apocalypse.


Could the KonMari method help us with our digital mess too?

By Camay Abraham

Does this dick pic spark joy for you? You may not ask that exact question to yourself, but those scrolls of texts from an ex-love, the hundreds of selfies you’re not planning to use, or the idle apps and files filling up your phone and computer can be overwhelming to clear out—leading to letting our digital clutter to take over our digital space. This digital clutter not only affects our screens but also affects our mental space, so why not curate only the best digital items that will spark joy by employing the cult-cleaning power of the KonMari Method?

It’s safe to say that everyone has seen or at least heard of the KonMari method. Created by Japan’s tiny tidy queen, Marie Kondo, it’s a philosophy and lifestyle that ignited a bestselling book, hit Netflix series, and a cult following of immaculately folded wardrobes. If you’re not familiar, it’s an organising and decluttering system based on how an item makes you feel, instead of focusing on practicality (popularly known as spark joy). And just like cleaning your flat can positively affect your mental health, so does cleaning your digital space. 

Do we need to care if we’re cluttering our devices? It’s easy to think of our devices and even our cloud storage as boundless. So what’s the harm right? On an environmental level, files that are uploaded into our computer and uploaded to the internet use up storage space. As data is sustained through data server centres, it uses high amounts of electricity, emitting volumes of heat, using large amounts of land and billions of dollars to shelter. On a psychological level, warehousing thousands of files on our devices can bring mental strain. Ironically, Kondo suggests putting photos on a hard drive or cloud storage system, which might be more practical, but does not solve the mental and digital clutter.

The oceans of memes, photos, apps, and texts to sift through may be overwhelming, so it’s easier to let it live in our devices. The volume of what we accumulate may intimidate us but there’s also a psychological reason behind our apprehension. According to Russell Belk’s 2013 study, we’re more reluctant to delete items if we invest time and energy. Whether it be time investing in text messages with our lover, hours taking the perfect selfie, and even time downloading an app and going through the signing up process. These digital possessions create a collection of ourselves and use it as a reminder of an experience. 

That’s not to say these memories are accurate—who’s really truthful digitally anyway? But as enhancing emotion and nostalgia of the experience. These memories are artefacts that represent old relationships, old memories, an old you. We keep them to reflect on our mistakes, our achievements, and our growth as human beings. According to Kondo who spoke with CNN, “The biggest mistake with digital tidying is focusing too much on what to discard.” Like everything else in the KonMari method, you should only keep things that are valuable to you, makes sense in your lifestyle, and “spark joy”.

On the flip side, too many digital memories can disable you to remember that experience. Based on reports from Business Insider, people took 1.2 trillion photos in 2017 alone. Those numbers have risen exponentially since then. According to Linda Henkel, a professor of psychology at Fairfield University in Connecticut, when you use your camera to save the experience instead of your brain, it stops you from creating an emotional attachment to the memory. This phenomenon aptly named the ‘Photo Taking Impairment’ affects not only your mental space but your digital space as well—like junk in your closet.

This unemotional disconnect to our digital memories also stems into how we interact with our apps. According to Statista, the number of app downloads in 2017 reached 178 billion, with this figure predicted to rise to 258 billion by 2022. According to a 2018 report by Business of Apps, users spend 80 percent of their time with their top ten favourite apps—an average of 10 apps a day, or 30 per month. As our attention spans are lowered we are more likely to delete apps more frequently—29.1 percent of Android phone users and 25 percent of iPhone users let apps sit in their phones for at least a day before they are unceremoniously deleted.

Some may argue that due to our nonchalance towards our digital possessions and how easily they can be duplicated, they hold less of an emotional attachment. On the contrary, these digital possessions could hold even more credence. But in many regards, existing in the digital sphere already makes them more precious—photos, texts, and apps can be accidentally deleted, your device could be stolen, or the dreaded phone in the toilet. Today so many of our memories rely on the existence of online platforms, of hardware and software, and it is when these technologies crash that we are reminded of their ephemerality.

The attachment to our digital possessions and the fear of losing them garners us to obsessively back up files, thus creating even more digital clutter. We need to pivot our thinking and see our digital space as a personal space. If we’re more mindful—the KonMari way—it would ease our mental strain and bring more meaning to what we allow to live in our screens. So I’ll ask again—does that dick pic spark joy for you?