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What Is "Fake News" in the Age of AI?

Artificial Intelligence is quickly blurring the lines between what is real and what can be computer-generated.

If you are a television reporter or generator of video content, Xin Xiaomeng is your worst nightmare!

With all the talk about "fake news" these days, and all the concern over where and how people around the world are getting their news and information, one would think: Surely, this won't get any worse.

Well, it is, and it will. If you were worried about the spread of fake news stories and false information on the web, technology is coming to the fore that will enable media, governments, companies, and likely soon, individuals to be able to create their own "authentic" looking news reports using AI (artificial intelligence) that will be hard—or almost impossible–to distinguish from news stories delivered by "real," human sources.

How "real" can fake news get in the age of AI? Meet Xin Xiaomeng. If you are in the television news business, she is your worst nightmare! "She" is a news anchor—or news reader as the role is called in many parts of the world—who is completely computer generated. According to a report in The National, entitled "China has unveiled its 'first female AI news anchor,'" Xinhua, the country's official state-run and largest media organization, has just debuted Xin in the story featured below.

Xin, the AI-generated news anchor, was modeled by her developers after Qu Meng, a "real" Xinhua news anchor. You be the judge by looking at the picture of the real female reporter who developers used as the basis for their work. Pretty close, eh?  And side-by-side, the "real" and "fake" news anchors appear frighteningly similar!

Xinhua's "Real" News Anchor, Qu Meng

Which one is a real person and which one is computer generated?

And this is not the Chinese state-run media's first foray into having an always ready-to-go "reporter" who is always ready-to-read whatever news that is programmed for "it." Xin Xiaomeng will actually be the female "colleague" with Xin Xiaohao, an AI-generated "newsman" who actually debuted in November 2018! Here just a few months later, Xinhua debuted a new, improved "Xin Xiaohao 2.0," who can now appear even more lifelike than before! In the Twitter post from the official news agency's official account, China Xinhua News, the anchor's report somewhat chillingly concludes with this observation:

"Now I have my own name, Xin Xiaohao. Thanks to this upgrade, I'll be able to conduct better broadcasts."

Now, "better broadcasts?"

And yes, although a bit "stiff"—well, he's animated, but not animated—it would be honestly hard for the average person to distinguish between a "real" news anchor and this AI-generated one. Watch the clip below and then honestly ask yourself, live or bot?

Analysis

OK, as a strategic management consultant and professor, I am not prone to being a "conspiracy theorist" or one to proclaim that "the sky is falling." I am by no means a tinfoil hat wearing believer that the sinister forces are all around us—and aliens, too!

However, when you see game-changing technology emerging, you have to take note of it. This is a game-changer! While the videos generated thus far by the Chinese news agency have been rather short and stilted, one knows that with technology, things always advance at a rapid rate. And so quite soon, one could be watching entire news reports and indeed entire news shows that are entirely computer generated.

Now, I am not a media analyst or a futurist, but one can readily see that there a broad ethical implications as the line between "real" and AI-generated reporters, anchors, and news stories blurs. One could easily see AI-generated characters interacting with live, human ones in the news setting. Need an expert commentator on a subject—especially one who agrees with "the company-line"—or the government position? Just wait a few minutes and with some coding and creativity—wallah! Have a  situation too dangerous to send a human into? Not a problem, let's simply create one and send that AI-generated "newsperson" into the area. The possibilities—and legal and ethical issues—are indeed endless!

However, I do want to end on a positive note. While there are certainly a number of issues to be sorted out as this area of artificial intelligence develops, and they likely won't really be sorted out until after the technology takes hold, there are also a world of possibilities that this capability to produce very human, very believable AI-generated characters presents for the future. For all the potential pitfalls that could come from the advent of highly realistic looking AI-generated news (think Russian election hacking on massive amounts of steroids!), I do also see that there could be a world of possible positive uses of this potent new technology. Think of all the ways that such AI-generated "people" could be utilized in everything from areas as diverse as education and employee training to customer service to health care. The introduction of very life-like and yes, hard to distinguish from real fake "people" on our screens has the potential to make our interactions with "people" far better than it is at present.

Think about it! Rather than chatting in a text box in dealing with a technical issue on your computer or when your cable goes out, you could be interacting with "Bob" the bot! Rather than having your toddler watch a an animated dinosaur teach him or her the alphabet or seeing a high school student trying to learn algebra from a boring online course, a highly realistic computer generated "teacher" could be employed. Rather than simply having instructions given to patients on a pre-printed form, such an AI-created expert could interact with the patient to provide much more effective health education—information that could indeed save their lives from reducing adverse events.

And so while I do think that in an age of automation and concern with the cost of employing real, live human beings, the introduction of AI-generated characters that are so very realistic could be an existential threat to folks employed in the television industry and the media. Yes, there would be advantages to media companies to have a bot do the work over a human being—and so jobs can and will be lost as the ethics and legality of all of this play out. However, I also think that the advent of such AI-generated characters also presents vast and varied opportunities for good to be done, and so, over time, it will be highly interesting to watch as all of this unfolds. One thing is for sure, we have come a long, long way from the days of Max Headroom! Buckle up, it's going to be an interesting, and yes, perhaps scary at times, ride!

About David Wyld

David Wyld ([email protected]) is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness. He is the founder and publisher of both The IDEA Publishing [The Best in News, Information, and Content Marketing] and Modern Business Press [The Best in Academic Journals].

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