Japan’s NHK is putting an AI-powered cartoon anime on air to read you the news. 💁🏻‍♀️

This is the national broadcaster's contribution to automated journalism.

By Tim Hornyak
Splice Japan

If you tune into News Check Eleven on Japanese public broadcaster NHK TV, there’s a new feature that might give you pause. Leaping on screen to join hosts Minoru Aoi and Kaori Nagao is an animated, computer-generated character with cute looks and a nose for the latest online trends. “Yomiko”, billed as an artificially intelligent announcer, is Japan’s latest experiment in the automation of journalism.

The broadcaster, formally known as Japan Broadcasting Corporation, rolled out the AI cartoon earlier this month. Wearing a blue blazer, white skirt and earrings in the shape of an “A” and “I,” Yomiko appears to be about 30 or 40 cm tall when “standing” on a desk used by her human counterparts. In a somewhat robotic monotone, she introduces topics such as how school uniforms are being recycled and whether body odor can amount to “smell harassment” before responding to questions from Aoi and Nagao.  

“Yomiko is amazing! She’s really having a conversation!” viewer @toshitaka_szk wrote in a Twitter post that was picked up by NHK and reproduced on screen during Yomiko’s debut.

Yomiko is a virtual news announcer on NHK, Japan's public broadcaster, that uses artificial intelligence. (Image supplied)
Yomiko is a virtual news announcer on NHK, Japan's public broadcaster, that uses artificial intelligence. (Image supplied)

News meets anime

“Yomiko is a new way to deliver the news centered on the concept of ‘viewer participation,’” NHK says in a statement to Splice Newsroom. “We would like to position it as an AI announcer that will be raised along with viewers and improve its news reading and conversation skills. We hope viewers will enjoy this process.”

Yomiko was developed at NHK Science & Technology Research Laboratories, which is known for creating cutting-edge broadcasting technologies such as 4K and 8K. It’s based on software that the lab made to read news from the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics earlier this year. The system uses deep learning techniques from AI and has a vocabulary of some 100,000 words. Yomiko can also read the latest bulletins through Google Home and Amazon Alexa. Viewers can also use an augmented reality app to take smartphone photos featuring Yomiko.

While Yomiko is only a one-year experiment, she has all the ingredients for success, at least with Japanese viewers. The size of a doll, with an earnest, pleasant disposition, Yomiko is far being from a threatening robotic presence.

She’s designed to look like a fresh-faced cub reporter and her name is a tongue-in-cheek play on the Japanese verb yomu, to read.

But her biggest asset is probably the fact that she was designed by manga artist Katsuki Tanaka, creator of the hit capsule toy Fuchiko on the Cup. Marketed by Kitan Club, Fuchiko is a small plastic figurine dressed like an office lady, or Japanese female clerical worker, that can be posed on the edge of cups and other objects; launched in 2012, Fuchiko has notched up sales of over 20 million units in over 1,500 variations. There’s no small resemblance between Fuchiko and Yomiko. Though NHK denies the toy was used as a model, its Yomiko page shows her sitting coquettishly on a virtual rock, holding a cup.

Appearing on News Check Eleven, Yomiko is described as
Appearing on News Check Eleven, Yomiko is described as "evolving every day with AI speech". (Image supplied)

NHK wants to enter the 21st century by moving beyond television.

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A virtual trend

Virtual news announcers have been around since 2007 and virtual video personalities are nothing new in Japan. Kizuna AI, billed as the world’s first virtual YouTube vlogger, looks like an anime schoolgirl and has a YouTube following of over 1.5 million and was recently selected as a Japan National Tourism Organization ambassador.

But Yomiko is part of an international trend toward news automation, as seen in regional newspaper Shinano Mainichi Shimbun’s use of AI to write news summaries. For the moment, though, it’s unclear whether Japan will see more AI talking heads or if they will  threaten the jobs of human counterparts.

Asked if that could happen, NHK merely says, “We’re still in the development stage regarding Yomiko’s news reading abilities, and we would like viewers to use Yomiko for TV news, news websites, apps, smart speakers and other means.”

Tim Hornyak is a freelance journalist based in Tokyo. He is the author of Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots. Follow Tim Hornyak on Twitter.

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