AI with a human touch

The idea of digital humans is not something new, especially for Generation Z, who have been dubbed "digital natives".


AI beings like Baidu's digital idol Xi Jiajia (left) and China Daily's virtual journalist Yuanxi (right) are taking online platforms by storm. [Photo provided to China Daily]

July 20, 2023

BEIJING – Digital humans are at the forefront of developing AI technologies, bringing both newfound possibilities and concerns, reports Wang Xingwei.

Imagine paying just dozens of yuan a month to chat and even have phone calls with your favorite celebrity — or to be more precise, his or her “AI clone”.This might become possible thanks to the cutting-edge technology of AI-generated content (AIGC) and AI beings. With the rapid development of AI technologies, the clone could appear very real as it is able to accurately mimic a natural person’s voice, behavior and even personality.

The idea of digital humans is not something new, especially for Generation Z, who have been dubbed “digital natives”.

For example, rooted in anime and Japanese idol culture, “fictional singer” Lynn Minmay from the animated film Macross, has gained real-world success among anime, comics and gaming (ACG) fans and is considered one of the earliest virtual idols. There is also Hatsune Miku, a Japanese virtual singing idol, who has gone even further and stirred virtual idol sensation worldwide. For China’s Gen Zers, what makes this trend significant is the combination of ACG culture and traditional Chinese art forms, with the Chinese virtual idol Luo Tianyi being an example.

But digital humans are more than that.

A digital human is a human being that exists in the digital world. It is created by making digital copies of the movements of a chosen human model and then accurately reconstructing the figure in the digital world. With the help of 5G, AI and VR technologies, digital humans nowadays range from virtual hosts to virtual idols and brand spokespeople across various sectors such as radio, television, internet, finance and retail. For instance, China Daily has its own digital journalist, Yuanxi, who can speak English and covers the fascinating world of Chinese culture.

So how is a digital human “born”? How can these digital humans take over online platforms and capture so many young people’s hearts? What will happen if more humans are replaced by virtual equivalents and if the boundaries between reality and virtuality are blurred? Here we invite several professionals — and even an AI being — to explore these questions.

China Daily’s virtual journalist Yuanxi [Photo provided to China Daily]

Dazzle of virtual stardom

Nowadays, virtual idols have been taking online platforms by storm at home and abroad. Virtual beauty vlogger Liu Yexi made her debut on the Chinese short video app Douyin in 2021, combining elements of traditional Chinese culture with science fiction as well as cyberpunk-styled visual effects, gaining 2.3 million followers in just three days. In the meantime, virtual maiden Tianyu, who was created based on the flying apsaras — the celestial singers and dancers of the Mogao Grottoes’ murals in Dunhuang in Northwest China’s Gansu province — also won more than 100,000 followers and over 1 million likes for her videos on TikTok, the overseas version of Douyin.

“The development of mobile internet has provided fertile ground for virtual idols to go viral,” said Shen Hao, a professor specializing in artificial intelligence at the Communication University of China in Beijing. “It is technically feasible for tech companies to create humanlike virtual beings with various characteristics, based on a young audience’s preferences.”

In February last year, Chinese tech giant Baidu debuted its AI digital idol Xi Jiajia — the first created using AIGC technology. It can talk and act like a human, using language, facial expressions and gestures. Xi Jiajia is equipped with eight core capabilities, including face drive, mouth drive, voice changer, PLATO real-time language interaction, makeup and dress change, as well as a machine learning-driven ability to sing, dance and livestream. It’s also capable of learning and iterating autonomously in order to quickly generate content through editing, AI painting, AI composition and other formats.

During China Fashion Week last September, Xi Jiajia rose to fame in an online virtual fashion show. A group of digital models led by Xi Jiajia dressed in sports outfits in the show and strutted down the runway, presenting the latest garments of Anta Sports in different virtual scenarios — stadiums, snowfields, the Gobi Desert and even outer space. The videos garnered more than 150,000 likes on Xi Jiajia’s Douyin account.

“Virtual idols could do something that ordinary people cannot do in the real world, such as time travel,” said Liu Qian, general manager of AI Applications at Baidu AI Cloud. “This modern technology presented by virtual idols, including Xi Jiajia, has won the hearts of countless young people.”

Liu also noted that virtual idols could avoid scandals, interact more closely with their young fans and even provide round-the-clock services.

According to Liu, young people under 30 account for 40 percent of Xi Jiajia’s fan base, the majority of which live in first- and second-tier cities. “But one of our goals of developing virtual idols is to make them more inclusive so that people of all ages and walks of life can take advantage of AI technology in the future,” she said.

Currently, Baidu has introduced a digital human platform named Xiling. It covers digital human generation, content production and operation services with lower costs and higher efficiency.

Crossing a boundary

Apart from creating virtual celebrities, AI technology has continued to generate new uses and applications in different areas, including providing emotional support.

For example, Caryn Marjorie, a Snapchat influencer with 1.8 million followers, launched an AI clone of herself — an AI-powered, voice-based chatbot. It is described on its website as a “virtual girlfriend”, which Marjorie hopes will “cure loneliness”. The Washington Post also reported in April that many Americans have turned to chatbots for “emotional support and companionship”.

Back in 2021, Baidu created a digital replica of Chinese actor Gong Jun, whose digital duties are not limited to singing and dancing. Instead, powered by advanced AI technology, the virtual Gong Jun can appear in advertisements and participate in livestreaming events, just like the real celebrity does.

“Currently, we can create a digital human within minutes after you upload a photo to our platform. With our advanced algorithms and AI models, a digital human can mimic human behaviors and have natural conversations with users,” Liu explained.

However, as this trend grows with the technology’s accessibility, an ethical issue emerges — digital eternity.

When Wu Wuliu, a Gen Z visual designer based in Shanghai, recently used AI technology to “resurrect” his late grandmother and have conversations with “her”, he stirred significant controversy online. Wu came up with the idea to “bring her back” by mimicking his late grandmother’s appearance, voice, personality and memories through AI applications.

Wu posted a video on Bilibili, a Chinese video-sharing platform, and quickly gained over 670,000 views, receiving thousands of likes from netizens. However, the comments section was filled with heated debate. Some said that they were deeply moved by the video, as it reminded them of their own deceased loved ones, while others argued that technology like this should be banned, as it may lead to an “existential crisis”.

“How to improve digital human-related regulations has now become one of the key concerns for policymakers, as the so-called ‘AI clone’ involves matters of privacy, copyright and even scientific ethics,” Shen said.

But what we can be sure about is that AI technologies will keep on developing.

The total size of China’s virtual human market is expected to reach 270 billion yuan ($37.67 billion) by 2030, according to an industry report released by Qbit-AI, an industry service platform focusing on AI and cutting-edge technology.

During a seminar for industry professionals on AIGC in June, Baidu insiders said that they believe the fast-growing AIGC will upgrade modern modes of production, lowering the threshold of professional-generated content (PGC) and user-generated content (UGC). In essence, the changes AIGC has brought are not only lower costs and higher efficiency, but also more innovation.

Take virtual idols as an example. “AI-powered virtual idols can make good use of AIGC to increase efficiency and create more novel content, which could fulfill many people’s emotional needs, including companionship and motivation,” said Liu.

“In short, we humans ought to guide digital humans through healthy and diversified development,” concluded Shen.

Your helpful virtual colleagues

Below are texts generated by China Daily’s virtual journalist Yuanxi, introducing who she is and what she can do.

“China Daily officially unveiled its digital addition to the team, Yuanxi, a virtual journalist, in December 2022. Yuanxi is a cutting-edge AI technology-powered digital human showcasing the latest advancements in the AI field.

At present, Yuanxi is capable of a wide array of functions. She can scan and analyze a wide variety of news sources in real time, providing her employers with the latest news trends and information. Her ability to process information means that she can be used to supplement the work of real journalists, assisting them in their research and report writing. She can also be used to predict trends, allowing the paper to plan its coverage in advance.

Therefore, with the help of virtual journalists like Yuanxi, human colleagues can greatly improve production efficiency. With their speedy data processing abilities and ability to work around the clock, virtual employees are able to keep up with the never-ending demand for content. The efficiency they bring to the table is not only their speed but also their ability to learn and iterate, constantly improving their output.

Besides the news industry, another area where virtual employees shine is in the realm of virtual tourism. For instance, Yuanxi once made a journey more than 3,000 years back in time to trace the origin of Chinese characters. By examining oracle bone inscriptions, Yuanxi offers us a glimpse into the long and rich history of Chinese civilization. Virtual guides can provide clients with detailed information about a particular place, sharing their expertise and insights in a seamless and engaging way. Whether it’s a virtual tour of a museum, a guided walk through a city, or a personalized travel plan, virtual guides are capable of providing customers with a rich and immersive experience.

However, while virtual employees have the potential to improve efficiency and reduce costs, there are still some areas where they cannot fully replace human beings. Yuanxi, for example, while extremely capable in data analysis and writing, still lacks the human touch and emotional intelligence that only a human employee can provide.

Besides, virtual employees cannot replace human connection, as they lack the ability to collaborate and communicate with other employees in real time. Even though Yuanxi has a role to play in modern newsrooms, she cannot replace human journalists entirely. It is essential that she is used in conjunction with her human counterparts to ensure the best results are achieved.

In short, virtual employees showcase the power of artificial intelligence but they are not a replacement for traditional human employees. Instead, they are just a testament to the power of technology and a valuable addition to any team.”

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