Four artificial intelligences will host the world’s most-watched TV show in China next week, marking a first in history just in time for the Lunar New Year.
The annual China Central Television (CCTV) Network Spring Festival Gala, which airs on Feb. 5, will find celebrities Beining Sa, Xun Zhu, Bo Gao and Yang Long presiding with their “digital twins.”
Created by ObEN, Inc., the digital twins, formally known as “personal artificial intelligences” (PAIs), are built with technologies such as machine learning, natural language processing, speech synthesis and computer vision.
As such, they are able to act and talk like their human counterparts — singing and dancing included.
In an interview with Forbes, ObEN Chief Executive Officer and co-founder Nikhil Jain shared that the idea came to him after realizing how much his family missed him whenever he traveled.
“I would travel a lot, and I realized they would miss me … I figured that if there was a copy of me at home — a digital copy that talks with my voice and can interact with my kids, then my kids would miss me a lot less and my wife would be happier with me!”
ObEN’s PAIs utilize visual data collected from 3D scanners to mimic the physical appearance of their human counterparts. Through neural net technology, they also process their subjects’ personal data to recreate their speech, behaviors and personality.
The result are digital twins that can be even smarter, at least with regard to languages.
“We capture the voice data — the person speaking from a script — and the AI then learns the traits of your voice and can generate new content in your voice – either talking or singing,” Jain said.
“And not just in your native language … it’s also able to create content in your voice in languages you can’t even speak – in my case, I might record my data in English, but my personal AI can speak in Chinese, Japanese or Korean.”
CCTV selected ObEN, a Tencent-backed company based in Pasadena, California, to create the PAIs for the Spring Festival Gala after the latter’s work on Shanghai girl group SNH48.
Over the holidays, a music video featuring the six members and their digital selves was released.
“This song is our first step to test the waters in the virtual idol market. We are planning to create more intelligent virtual idols, releasing albums and making movies for them,” SNH48 Vice President Xiong Wei said, according to the South China Morning Post.
“Human idols are hardly perfect. They have their limits in terms of age and there may be gossip about their love affairs. None of these will be an issue for virtual idols.”
The Spring Festival Gala, projected to have more than one billion viewers, will come with a WeChat mini-app that the public can download to use any of the four PAI hosts to send personalized New Year’s greetings to loved ones.
For ObEN, the idea of having viewers interact with the celebrity hosts from their own homes coincides with this year’s Gala theme, “Bringing the Love Home.”
“Participation in the Network Spring Festival Gala is an incredible honor for ObEN,” ObEN Chief Operating Officer and co-founder Dr. Adam Zheng said in a press release.
“The human hosts for the program represent some of the best talent in broadcast, and we are very excited to have our PAI (Personal AI) avatars stand alongside them to help people ring in the Lunar New Year.”