Fueled by advances in technology, avatars offer plenty of help and companionship
Every Monday, a young, good-looking host named Xiao C appears in an online video program hosted by CCTV.com, a news website of China Media Group.
Dressed in a pink T-shirt and with her hair tied in a bun, she broadcasts sporting events such as soccer, basketball, volleyball, swimming and track and field and asks questions to the audience. She can even interact naturally with human sports commentators and discuss tactics in a soccer game.
Xiao C is a virtual recreation of real news anchors developed by Chinese tech giant Baidu Inc. It can mimic human facial expressions, body language, and movements, and is almost indistinguishable from a real person.
The Virtual Anchor offers a glimpse of how a wider range of sectors have started to embrace AI-powered digital human models. Recent advances in technology have resulted in virtual humans, who closely resemble real humans in appearance and behavior, becoming increasingly visible in a variety of industries such as broadcasting, retail, finance, entertainment, education, culture and tourism.
From digital financial advisors introducing clients to banks’ wealth management services to virtual presenters offering live sign language commentary to hearing-impaired viewers, digital people will play a bigger role in people’s daily lives, according to industry experts.
The size of China’s virtual human market is expected to reach 270 billion yuan (US$38.5 billion) by 2030, according to an industry report by QbitAI, an industrial services platform focusing on AI and cutting-edge technology.
Sales of virtual people with unique designs, such as virtual celebrities, are expected to reach 175 billion yuan in China by 2030, while sales of service-oriented virtual people are expected to surpass 95 billion yuan, the report said.
Statistics from Qichacha, a database that tracks business registrations, showed that China now has more than 280,000 companies engaged in digital people-related businesses, with the compound annual growth rate of newly registered businesses reaching nearly 60 percent over the past five years .
Recently, Baidu launched two companionship-oriented virtual beings, Lin Kaikai and Ye Youyou. Powered by Baidu’s Plato — a dialog-generation AI model trained on over 10 billion parameters collected from social media conversations in English and Chinese — the two digital humans are capable of smooth, human-like interaction.
You can join conversations through texts, voice messages, and emojis. They can also offer customized wake-up calls and learn more about their users’ preferences through increased frequency of chats and interactions, Baidu said.
Given the fast and stressful pace of urban life, digital avatar companions can ease people’s anxiety and satisfy their desire for emotional connection. This has supported a boom in the digital human industry, said Li Shiyan, head of Baidu’s digital human and robotics department.
“The application of advanced AI technologies will further reduce the cost of creating digital people and greatly improve their interactions with real people,” said Li.
Baidu released its Xiling digital avatar platform in 2021, providing a complete set of services to create and operate virtual hosts, virtual celebrities and virtual brand spokespersons for clients in broadcast, television, internet, finance and retail, enabling more industries, virtual people to use.
In addition, Xiling’s intelligent dialogue tools allow developers to quickly adjust a digital human’s conversational ability, allowing them to adapt and learn over time.
“With breakthroughs in AI-powered algorithms, the production cost of digital people will be reduced by 10 to 100 times, and the production time will be reduced from several months to just a few hours,” Yuan Foyu, vice president of Baidu, said in a previous interview. These anticipated developments will lead to large-scale application of digital humans across a variety of industries, she said.
Baidu has worked with Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, China Everbright Bank and China Unicom to introduce service-oriented digital people to increase operational efficiency and reduce labor costs. At Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, digital humans were used for customer service, document review, internal training and sales.
Officials have high hopes for the market as Beijing released an action plan in August that boosts innovative development of the digital human sector. The scale of Beijing’s virtual human industry is expected to exceed 50 billion yuan by 2025.