In September, when Taiwanese influencer Chen Yizhou, with nearly nine million followers on the Weibo social network, live-streamed footage of himself eating chicken legs for fifteen hours straight, his followers were ecstatic. How could he do such a thing? But then some began to doubt whether such a feat was even possible for humans. The fine print on the video feed later confirmed their suspicions: “For display purposes only, not a real person,” a subtle caption accompanying the stream clarified.
Many people were outraged by Chen’s actions. Between September 24 and 26 this year, this influencer reportedly lost more than seven thousand followers. Even the legal community took notice after this case. Tung Jüan-jüan of Beijing-based law firm Tiantai said avatars created by artificial intelligence cannot be completely separated from the celebrity itself. “Even the fact that it broadcasts virtually (…) does not exempt the celebrity from legal responsibility,” he added.
However, influencer Chen is far from the only one who leaves the “dirty” online work to his avatar. Also, many other streamers, especially in the e-commerce industry, are increasingly turning to their digital clones. They, too, have the task of constantly pumping the specified content onto social networks. This allows internet stars like Chen to push their content further. And so their earnings rise to even greater heights. But for lesser-known streamers, artificial intelligence can threaten their livelihoods. Sooner or later, media companies will switch to cheaper digital stars.
It only takes a minute to train
Livestreaming is big business in China right now. According to data from iResearch, the industry employed more than 1.23 million people in 2020. According to Daxue Consulting, more than 700 million internet users are currently watching their channels. While at the beginning of this phenomenon, live broadcasts of people talking, singing or going about their daily activities dominated the networks, today the industry has become closely connected with e-commerce. In 2023, live streams are expected to have a turnover of sixteen trillion crowns, i.e. more than eleven percent of the total e-commerce sector.
Shopping livestream channels work by having influencers talk about products or try them on for hours on end. They can also answer viewers’ questions about products and offer discounts or sales on specific brands. But now AI startups are joining the trend. They sell influencers and media companies digital avatars to help with the work.
For example, Silicon Intelligence, based in Nanking, can generate a basic clone of a streamer for as little as 26,000 crowns, although according to the bimonthly MIT Technology Review, the price may increase for more complex programming. A company only needs a minute of footage of a human being to train a virtual influencer.
A recent survey of young Chinese on the Weibo social network showed that more than 60 percent of them would be interested in working as influencers or livestreamers. However, it is these up-and-coming influencers who are most likely to be displaced by AI bots. “This trend may put more pressure on lower-tier livestreamers because they are more expendable to brands,” says Ya-ling Jiang, an independent analyst who studies Chinese consumer behavior.
We don’t gossip, says the influencer
Bigger influencers like Chen now rely on their profiles to increase their status and popularity. “The hardest part of becoming successful is being part of the hype and the media cycle,” says Jiang. According to him, modern influencers do not have gossip or can be seen in reality shows, on the streets or in the stadium like Taylor Swift. “If we’re not in the limelight, what media value do we have?” he asks.
Then there is the question of authenticity. On October 11, the Chinese government published draft guidelines for companies using generative artificial intelligence technology. The proposed regulations state that people to be cloned by AI should provide written consent for their biometrics to be used in this way. However, they do not specify how such content should be marked for the public. Some platforms, such as the social network Douyin, have their own requirements, but they do not yet apply them. “There are still a lot of gray areas,” admits influencer Jiang.
The world of deepfake livestreams may soon catch the attention of Chinese regulators. Until then, however, more and more clones will appear on video platforms, according to The Guardian. And clone videos that advertise clone creation services…