Digital workers turn heads as they promote products

By HE QI in Shanghai and MA ZHENHUAN in Hangzhou (China Daily) 08:43, September 15, 2023

Companies put virtual social media influencers through their paces


Chinese artificial intelligence startup Xmov set tongues wagging when it presented its latest technological products to more than 300 guests at its launch event in Shanghai last month.

But it wasn't the products that had people talking. Rather, it was the host "hired" by the company for the launch — a super-realistic 3D artificial intelligence personality named Jing.

Released in May by Xmov, Jing can be embedded in corporate websites, PowerPoint presentations and apps to answer questions, provide explanations and guide users.

Founded in 2018, Xmov specializes in creating visually appealing, expressive and interactive AI-powered digital humans. The company is the first in China to launch a virtual social media influencer named Ling, who is always seen in a traditional Chinese costume.

Ling, who appeared at the China Central TV Spring Festival Gala, has more than 1 million followers on the Sina Weibo social media platform.

Xmov also created the virtual idol Ling Yanhuan, who drew millions of viewers during a livestream broadcast on the Douyin review site.

A recent study conducted by Nikkei in collaboration with scientific publisher Elsevier showed that China is now the world leader in artificial intelligence research, with the number and quality of related papers issued by the nation surpassing those of the United States.

Xinhua News Agency reported that many industry experts have said they hope that China will become the world leader in AI by 2030.

On Aug 15, the Cyberspace Administration of China and six other government departments issued an interim measure for the management of generative AI services, stating that the innovative application of generative AI technology in various fields is greatly encouraged.

In view of the booming AI sector, companies and governments in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China's largest livestreaming hub, have been exploring the use of AI-generated hosts for use in livestreaming.

Data from the Zhejiang Provincial Department of Commerce show that Hangzhou is home to 32 livestreaming platforms and nearly 50,000 livestreamers. More than 5,000 livestreaming-related companies are registered in the city, which is capital of Zhejiang.

One of the main challenges facing such companies is reducing the costs associated with building livestreaming rooms and teams while attracting more online traffic. The emergence of the AI hosts has been touted as an ideal solution.

Compared with traditional livestreaming models, AI hosts offer numerous benefits, including the ability to work 24 hours a day. Such hosts were available as early as 2019, but issues such as poor image quality and stiff facial expressions meant that they were not widely used.

However, the development of new technologies in the past two years has drastically improved the quality of these virtual hosts and made them viable replacements for their human counterparts.

Qianxun Holdings, one of China's top livestreaming companies, recently launched an AI host service and a one-stop comprehensive AI livestreaming service platform in Hangzhou.

Tao Yadong, a partner at Qianxun Holdings and CEO of Qianyu Intelligence, said at the launch that the digital hosts are created based on facial images collected from humans. Although such a process is costly and difficult, the virtual characters created are significantly lifelike in appearance.

Qianxun Holdings has also cooperated with Nanjing Guiji Intelligent Technology Co to improve virtual hosts' interaction capabilities.

Major companies, including Suning and sports equipment manufacturer Xtep, have used Qianxun's virtual hosts to promote their products through livestreaming.

Tao said it costs more than 150,000 yuan ($20,604) a month to run a traditional livestreaming room complete with a dozen workers and equipment. On the other hand, a virtual livestreaming room helmed by a virtual host costs only several thousand yuan to operate. Furthermore, only one or two people are needed to manage the room.

Tests conducted by Qianxun show the performance of virtual hosts in terms of gross merchandise volume, average view duration, number of viewers, and transaction rate is the same as, if not better than, that of human hosts.

Other Chinese companies to launch virtual host services include Baidu and SenseTime.

In a test on Baidu's virtual host platform Xiling, a new virtual livestreamer sold smart watches for 33 hours, generating 13,000 yuan in sales. The cost of this marathon session was just 100 yuan, only a small fraction of what it can cost to use a human livestreamer.

Tao said: "In terms of sales of daily necessities, virtual hosts are comparable to unknown smalltime livestreamers. Many brands have replaced human livestreamers with virtual hosts that can work around the clock, while numerous cross-border e-commerce merchants are also turning to virtual hosts to sell their goods on Douyin."

The authorities in Hangzhou have also been encouraging local livestreaming companies to explore this new business model.

Earlier this year, the Zhejiang provincial authorities also encouraged companies to look at the use of virtual hosts to boost development of e-commerce livestreaming.

Office tasks

In addition to livestreaming hosts, virtual characters have been used as employees to help with recruitment and other office tasks.

During the 2023 Ding-Talk ecology conference held on Aug 22 in Shanghai, Ye Jun, CEO of Ding-Talk, held a live demonstration of its new digital employee. Ye showed how this virtual assistant can create recruitment advertising material, publish it on websites and platforms, collect and screen resumes, and schedule interviews.

"We can even instruct it to order coffee and other drinks during meetings. We simply need to tell the assistant what we want in the chat group, and the order will be placed on Eleme.com by using the corporate account," Ye said.

"The benefit of digital employees is they can assist in completing tedious and repetitive tasks, thus allowing human workers to devote more energy to creative work."

Ding-Talk is an intelligent working platform created by Alibaba Group to support tens of millions of enterprises to achieve higher working efficiency with this new digitalized working method.

Chai Jinxiang, CEO of Xmov, said similar applications will soon be found in sectors such as finance, media, fast-moving consumer goods, and cultural tourism.

"Expect to see virtual humans act as e-commerce anchors, teachers, salespeople and product experience officers in the near future. These virtual employees can be replicated to various terminals and work 24 hours a day to repeat and reshape various industries with a better service experience," he said.


Streaming services

But as capable as AI is, experts have said it will not completely replace humans.

Zhu Yongxiang, a professor at Communication University of Zhejiang who has been following the development of livestreaming services in China, said, "Digital human livestreamers have advantages and limitations.

"Based on the current technological level, virtual hosts might be considered more suitable for brand promotion, as they can perform the repetitive tasks required of human hosts. But as the underlying logic of livestreaming services is trust, it will be difficult for digital personalities to build trust with an audience."

Tao shares the same view.

"For the time being, there is really no way for digital human livestreamers to replace real humans in establishing trust with fans, but AI-generated content is evolving so rapidly that I dare not make any presumptions about what might happen in the future," Tao said.

Data from iiMedia Consulting show that 948 newly registered companies offered livestreaming services last year.

Some 47.5 percent of the users surveyed believe that human livestreamers and virtual ones will coexist in the future. In addition, the demand for virtual hosts is expected to be as high as 9 million in 2025, the data show.

Ye said the use of digital employees also comes with its own set of challenges.

On the one hand, such employees must have access rights to data systems to operate like human workers, Ye said. On the other hand, giving digital employees equal status as human workers can have serious repercussions, as the former are not accountable for their actions.

"Digital employees can be both capable and dangerous if their application is not well regulated and controlled," Ye added.

(Web editor: Zhong Wenxing, Liang Jun)


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