Rise of AI newsbots shakes up India's media landscape

NEW DELHI — When Indian broadcaster Odisha TV introduced a new anchor earlier this month, she garnered mixed reviews, from “pathbreaking” to “robotic” and “emotionless.”

The channel’s head, Jagi Mangat Panda, hailed her debut as “a milestone in broadcasting TV and digital journalism.”

Whatever their opinion, it seemed just about everyone had something to say about Lisa, Odisha TV’s first AI newscaster.

Dressed in a maroon and gold sari, the lifelike Lisa’s job is to deliver news bulletins on digital platforms, read horoscopes and provide weather and sports updates. Panda explained that the objective of using an anchor powered by artificial intelligence was to let it handle repetitive work and free up staff to “focus on doing more creative work to bring better quality news.”

But her arrival, and the recent rise of other newsbots, has stirred up a debate in India about the future of the media in the world’s most populous country. The phenomenon is mirrored in other Asian markets, from China to Southeast Asia, where artificial anchors are starting to change the face of news broadcasting.

AI offers a particularly powerful tool for reaching audiences in a country like India, where hundreds of languages are spoken. Even before Lisa popped up on screens, Delhi-based India Today Group had already launched the nation’s first AI news anchor, Sana. In addition to presenting news in English, Hindi and Bangla, she has reported the weather and co-anchored programs with other journalists in 75 languages.

Kalli Purie, India’s Today’s vice chairwoman, described Sana as “bright, gorgeous, ageless, tireless.”

In the southern state of Karnataka, Power TV is using Soundarya, who introduced herself as a “robot anchor.”

This growing tribe of AI anchors is powered by machine-learning algorithms, which analyze data from news articles to videos. As the government website INDIAai describes them, an AI anchor “collects, tracks and categorizes what is said and who said it, and then converts that data into usable and actionable information.”

Production managers say they are a boon for the industry because they save costs, allow channels to deliver news in a number of Indian languages and crunch vast amounts of data at phenomenal speed.

A TV producer who asked not to be identified offered another benefit: “Robots also mean less ego hassles for channels, which star anchors are notorious for.”

On the other hand, critics say the technology risks undermining media credibility. Robots, of course, lack the observational skills and experience of human journalists.

“TV is highly visual medium,” said Delhi-based schoolteacher Sanjay Parekh. “The chatbots deliver news in a monotonous voice and make no hand gestures. If you see a person who doesn’t even look human, how can you believe her? I switch channels immediately.”

Like other AI technologies, the adoption of virtual newscasters has also triggered fears of job losses, despite production companies’ assurances that robot anchors will never replace humans.

“It’s not our intent to substitute our current anchors with chatbots. Downsizing is far from our minds,” said a spokesperson for Karnataka’s Power TV. “We’re just supplementing our current staff strength and leveraging the power of technology to try something new and exciting in a domain that can get repetitive and monotonous. Besides, in a country with 22 official languages [and many others spoken], multilingual bots can facilitate better consumption of news.”

Regardless of the debate, use of AI in newsrooms looks likely to only grow. A survey published in May by the World Association of News Publishers found that 49% of all newsrooms globally were using AI tools like ChatGPT.

Back in 2018, China claimed to be the first to introduce an AI anchor. Since then, newsbots have also appeared in Indonesia, Malaysia and Taiwan. In the Middle East, too, Kuwait News recently introduced a virtual presenter named Fedha.

Mateen Ahmad, an assistant professor at the A.J.K. Mass Communication Research Center at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, said any new technology elicits fear and trepidation at first. He said movie producers once feared that animation would replace films starring humans, too, “but that never happened.”

Similar apprehensions gripped the publishing industry when the internet took off. “Many predicted that it will sound the death knell of newspapers and books,” Ahmad said. “The point is, for any creativity-related job, humans are indispensable. They can never be replaced by AI chatbots.”

At least for now — until AI becomes smarter than people — humans will still hold the key to innovation.

“So rather than bots taking away jobs, [newsbots will] likely create more jobs in the industry while upgrading content,” Ahmad predicted.