Media & Gaming

Turing’s talents

Chinese welcome new AI stars to their screens

Hua Zhibing-w

Hua is Tsinghua’s ‘virtual’ student

It might be called a reality TV show but nothing about any of its contestants is real at all.

Titled 2060, the new offering from Jiangsu TV pits 26 female competitors against one another in the typical singing and dancing talent show format.

But something is different – all of the contestants are anime characters.

There’s Dian Zan Xian, with crystal pink eyes and white blonde pigtails. Joining her is Gong – a space-suited siren nymph with a deep, raspy voice, a pixie haircut and a love of rap.

Also featuring in the queue of life-size creations: a towering warrior-like figure called Qi; a tracksuit-wearing teen called Xing; and a chicken with a television in its stomach.

The characters are projected onto a stage in front of a studio audience and then introduced by each of the creators that has designed them.

The character then performs a song, after which the judges (humans only, in this role) ask them questions. The anime performers respond naturally enough (although they have been pre-programmed with their answers). And the audience then votes on their favourite contestants, based on their looks, performing talent, and overall likeability.

From next season the audience will also watch the performances through Virtual Reality (VR) goggles, making the experience even more immersive, the show’s producer Wang Xi told the Global Times excitedly.

“Young people aged 18 to 35 are our target audience, so producing something they like is our priority,” he added.

While the format’s popularity speaks to a love of anime among many of its younger fans, it underlines the current enthusiasm for technology that mimics humans and their behaviour too.

China now has at least four virtual news anchors (three created by Xinhua and one by Mango TV) and Tsinghua University welcomed its first AI student this summer (that is, a ‘student’ created from an artificial intelligence programme rather than someone real studying artificial intelligence).

There are many different degrees of mimicry, although the next step in the technology under study is something that looks human (albeit it on a screen or device) that also has the ability to react to external stimuli in a human way.

At the top of ladder are AI programmes which learn in similar ways to real people. This is the basis of Hua Zhibing, Tsinghua University’s AI creation, who runs on Wu Dao 2.0. Her coding allows her to learn and interact with humans (Hua posts her own weibo comments, writes the occasional poem and enjoys digital painting). She has also been given graphical form via a dynamic, natural-looking screen image.

One of Hua’s creators, Tsinghua professor Tang Jie, told Xinhua that Wu Dao 2.0 deploys 1.75 trillion parameters to simulate speech, breaking a record held by Google’s Switch Transformer neural network.

Tang said Tsinghua’s technology was close to passing the Turing Test in areas like painting, text summaries and answering questions. (The Turing Test asks whether a machine can convince a human that it is ‘human’ too – a similar query had a central role in the 2014 Alicia Vikander movie Ex Machina).

Hua, who is represented as a light-skinned girl with petite features, has posted videos of herself walking though the Tsinghua campus and sitting on a wall playing a guitar. In her debut post on weibo she even claims interest in the power of self-reflection. “How was I born?” she asks. “How should I understand myself?”

Xinhua’s virtual news anchors have also drawn comment, although they have been deployed rather sparingly since they were first unveiled in 2018. Cynics might suggest that their human peers already look wooden enough. And the news agency explains their role rather unconvincingly too, saying the virtual anchors can work at night and broadcast in languages other than Chinese, which broadens their reach. “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,” one of the anchors, called Qiu Hao, boasts.


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