Powered by tech advances, avatars will provide sundry help, companionship
Every Monday, a young, good-looking female anchor named Xiao C appears in an online video program run by CCTV.com, a news website owned by China Media Group.
Dressed in a pink T-shirt with her hair tied in two buns, she broadcasts sporting events like football, basketball, volleyball, swimming and track and field, as well as posing questions to the audience. She can even interact naturally with human sports commentators and talk about tactics in a football match.
Xiao C is a virtual replica of real-life news anchors developed by Chinese tech giant Baidu Inc. She can mimic human facial expressions, body language and movement, and is almost indistinguishable from a real person.
The virtual anchor offers a glimpse into how a wider range of sectors have begun embracing AI-powered digital human models. New technological advances have made virtual humans, who are highly similar to real humans in appearance and behavior, increasingly visible in a wide range of industries like broadcasting, retail, finance, entertainment, education, culture and tourism.
From digital financial advisers who introduce banks' wealth management services to customers to virtual anchors providing live commentary in sign language for hearing-impaired viewers, digital humans are set to play a greater role in people's daily lives, industry experts said.
The size of China's virtual human market is forecast to reach 270 billion yuan ($38.5 billion) by 2030, according to an industry report released by QbitAI, an industry services platform focusing on AI and cutting-edge technology.
Revenue generated by virtual humans designed to be unique, such as virtual celebrities, is expected to reach 175 billion yuan in China by 2030, while that from the service-oriented virtual humans is forecast to exceed 95 billion yuan, the report said.
Statistics from Qichacha, a databank that tracks business registrations, showed China now has more than 280,000 enterprises engaged in businesses related to digital humans, with the compound annual growth rate of newly registered enterprises in the past five years reaching nearly 60 percent.
Recently, Baidu has launched two companionship-oriented virtual beings, Lin Kaikai and Ye Youyou. Powered by Baidu's Plato－an AI model for dialogue generation that is trained in over 10 billion parameters collected from social media conversations in both English and Chinese－the two digital humans are capable of smooth, humanlike interaction.
They can participate in conversations through texts, voice messages and emojis. They can also offer customized wake-up call services and learn about the preferences of their users through increased frequency of chats and interactions, Baidu said.
Given the rapid and stressful pace of urban life, digital avatar companions can relieve people's anxiety and satisfy their desire for emotional connections. This has bolstered a boom in the digital human industry, said Li Shiyan, head of the digital human and robotics section at Baidu.
"The application of advanced AI technologies will keep bringing down the cost of creating digital humans and significantly improve their interactions with real humans," Li said.
Baidu released its digital avatar platform Xiling in 2021, which provides a complete set of services for the creation and operation of virtual hosts, virtual celebrities and virtual brand spokespersons for clients in the fields of broadcasting, television, internet, finance and retail, enabling more industries to use virtual humans.
In addition, using Xiling's intelligent dialogue tools, creators can quickly customize a digital human's conversational ability, letting it adapt and learn over time.
"With breakthroughs made in artificial intelligence-powered algorithms, the production cost of digital humans will be reduced by 10 to 100 times, and the production period will be shortened from several months to just a few hours as well," Yuan Foyu, vice-president of Baidu, said in an earlier interview. These expected developments will result in large-scale application of digital humans in a variety of industries, she said.
Baidu has worked with Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, China Everbright Bank and China Unicom to launch service-oriented digital humans to enhance operational efficiency and reduce labor costs. Digital humans have been used for customer service, document review, internal training and sales at Shanghai Pudong Development Bank.
Officials have high hopes for the market as Beijing released an action plan in August that bolsters the innovative development of the digital human sector. The scale of the virtual human industry in Beijing is predicted to exceed 50 billion yuan by 2025.
The capital aims to develop one or two leading virtual human companies by 2025 with revenue surpassing more than 5 billion yuan each, and 10 companies that would generate annual revenue of 1 billion yuan each, according to the plan.
The plan calls for efforts to develop virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality terminal equipment, and apply speech recognition, natural language understanding and other artificial intelligence technologies to improve the interactive qualities of virtual beings.
"Digital humans are already demonstrating clear business value in numerous fields today," said Lu Yanxia, associate research director at market consultancy IDC China. "In the future, there will be digital humans coexisting side-by-side with us in life and work."
Shen Yang, a professor with the School of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University, said breakthroughs in machine learning, deep learning and semantic understanding－as well as the maturity of 3D imaging sensors and improvement of computing power－have all laid a solid foundation for the development of the digital human sector.
Chinese AI pioneer SenseTime, Xiaoice and tech giant Huawei Technologies Co have also made forays into the digital human market.
Tian Feng, dean of SenseTime's Intelligence Industry Research Institute, said digital humans are being developed into more advanced and intelligent models comparable to human beings. "The AI-enabled intelligent service provided by digital humans can significantly increase productivity, facilitating the integration of the digital and physical economies," he said.
Digital humans can be divided into five levels based on their level of autonomy and similarity to human beings, according to a white paper released by SenseTime and China Augmented Reality Core Technology Industry Alliance.
AI-powered digital humans of level 4 can achieve intelligent humanlike interactions by performing natural facial expressions and body movements under most circumstances. Tian said the intelligent interactions realized by digital humans of level 4 or higher can be applied in many industries and scenarios.
For instance, SenseTime's digital human has acted as a shopping guide at Aeon Mall in Guangzhou, as well as a customer service representative in the Bank of Ningbo's Shanghai branch, providing inquiry services for customers.
Xiaoice, another Chinese AI company, developed Cui Xiaopan, the first virtual employee of Chinese real estate developer Vanke. This digital human is in charge of reminding employees to pay the company's bills on time and collect bills due. Huawei Cloud has created and hired its first virtual human employee named Yunsheng.
"Although the digital avatar sector is still nascent, the appearance, gestures and actions of digital humans will become more and more refined and closer to that of real humans," said Yu Jianing, executive director of the metaverse industry committee at the China Mobile Communications Association, a Beijing-based industry association.
The accelerated application of 5G and the research and development of next-generation wireless technology 6G will fuel the digital human industry, Yu said, adding that virtual humans will become more intelligent and be able to give personalized feedback based on real-time information as a result of advances in artificial intelligence.
Interactive experiences with digital avatars will need to be further improved to give users a greater sense of reality when interacting with virtual humans, said Pan Helin, co-director of the Digital Economy and Financial Innovation Research Center at Zhejiang University's International Business School.
Chen Duan, director of the Digital Economy Integration Innovation Development Center at the Central University of Finance and Economics, said new problems for the industry have also emerged, such as ethics, data security and personal privacy protection. Chen called for efforts to formulate relevant laws and regulations on the ownership of digital characters and the standardization of their behavior.
A lack of rules and regulations in the digital human industry might open the way for illegal acts, like online fraud, said He Yuan, secretary-general of the Center for Artificial Intelligence Governance and Law at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. "When virtual humans call you on the phone, it might be difficult to distinguish them from real people," he said.
In addition to oversight from the authorities, all parties engaged in the digital human industry should strengthen cooperation to prevent potential legal and ethical risks in advance, he said.
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