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Lunar New Year, AI Style

Welcome to the Year of the Pig! Lunar New Year is China's biggest holiday, with this year's celebrations picking up during the “Little Year” period in late January, peaking February 4 for New Year's Eve, and continuing through February 19.

Welcome to the Year of the Pig! Lunar New Year is China’s biggest holiday, with this year’s celebrations picking up during the “Little Year” period in late January, peaking February 4 for New Year’s Eve, and continuing through February 19.

The holiday season brings families together to ring out the old and welcome the new, decorating windows and doors with red paper-cuts, composing poetic couplets and sharing a reunion dinner and a show. Thanks to AI, many New Year’s traditions now come wrapped up in high-tech glitter. Synced takes a look at some notable 2019 Lunar New Year AI applications.

Ticketless Spring festival travel rush

An early sign of Chinese New Year is the annual travel rush known as “the largest migration on the planet.” According to state-run Xinhua News Agency, China’s New Year’s travel rush will produce a total of 2.99 billion trips over a 40-day period this year. Most of the domestic travel is by train.

On Jan 21, railway stations in the southern province of Guangdong began a “ticketless travel” pilot test, enabling verified passengers traveling to Shenzhen to board high-speed trains by simply scanning QR codes using the Alipay app on their smartphones. While traditional ticket purchasing and checks can take up to 30 minutes, the “hop-on first, pay later” QR payment feature leverages facial recognition technology and only takes a few minutes. There are now almost 500 ticket machines equipped with facial recognition tech at railway and coach terminals in Shanghai Municipality, Jiangsu province, Zhejiang province, and Anhui province.

New Year traditions, ai style

  • AI tackles Traditional Couplets (对联) and New Year’s pictures

Chinese couplets are traditional, poetic pairs of lines of the same length with matching rhymes and related meanings. These couplets are typically inscribed beside the front door, inviting happiness and good wishes to enter, literally.

Chinese tech giants Baidu and Jindong rolled out AI-powered applications enabling the composition of customized couplets in seconds. Users key in Chinese characters and the AI does the creative work to produce the couplets.

AI technologies such as computer vision and natural language processing support the customized experience. Users can also upload a picture of themselves, which the AI system will swap onto a figure dressed in traditional Chinese costume after analyzing the face for age, gender, smile, glasses, etc.

The writer as a Baidu New Year’s generated character, with AI-generated couplets (clockwise from top) “Land of splendors”, “Beauty shall be admired when immersed in the rivers and mountains, elegance will come along”, and “Affections can be found between the moon and wind, no matter warm or cold”.

The “Year Picture” is also a popular tradition in China. Usually displayed in the style of a traditional woodblock print with a signature decoration during the New Year’s Holiday, the pictures bid goodbye to the past and welcome the future (辞旧迎新). Jingdong’s AI application can generate a unique Year Picture from a simple selfie.

 Jingdong’s AI-generated New Year picture incorporating the writer’s facial features.
  • Poetry and singing, the AI way

Chinese computer speech recognition and analysis startup AISpeech launched an interactive poetry-to-singing application. Users simply read a classic poem aloud, and the system transforms their speech into song. The app is backed by AI tech such as personalized singing synthesis and speech recognition.

AISpeech says the core feature of the application is vocal synthesis developed from a TTS-Text to Speech method. In a standard TTS system, there is usually a prosody model to predict the duration and pitch curve of each phoneme (syllable) based on the content of the sentence and the tone. In vocal synthesis, the prosody model is replaced with a song prosody model to finish predictions. The final generation process is similar to speech synthesis, combining prosodic parameters with spectra parameters to generate a singing voice.

Microsoft meanwhile partnered with CCTV (China Central Television) to create an AI system that interprets the scenes in pictures uploaded by users and composes songs which reflect features extracted from the images. Computer vision tech allows the application to interpret themes, environment, atmosphere, figures, colors, facial expressions, etc.

The synthesized songs can be sung in either the voice of popular CCTV anchor Hui Kang or the Microsoft smart voice Xiaoxiao, creating a final product that sounds more like rap than opera. It is however entertaining to hear a popular TV anchor rap about your cat, house, or hometown.

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  • CCTV Spring Festival Gala

The CCTV Spring Festival Gala (央视春晚) is Chinese TV’s Lunar New Year extravaganza, watched by hundreds of millions of people across the country. This year, the Gala shone a spotlight on the country’s state-of-the-art AI technologies.

AI Host
ObEN Inc.
ObEN used machine learning, computer vision, natural language processing, and speech synthesis to build virtual celebrities from scratch. Examining his own digital doppelganger, popular TV host Beining Sa joked that “it feels like I’m looking at a mirror!”

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The AI clone host was not China’s first. Last November Xinhua and leading search service provider Sogou jointly unveiled their own “AI Synthetic Anchor.”

Robot Dancers
UBTECH Robotics
Intelligent robot Walker’s debut at CES 2019 in Las Vegas last month attracted attention, and for the New Year’s Gala the Walkers become dancers. The androids’ choreographed performance was energetic, and much more impressive than their embarrassing, minutes-long attempt to fetch an umbrella at CES.

AI Transcription
iFLYREC Series voice-to-text products
Chinese voice recognition unicorn iFLYTEK provided a transcribing service to generate subtitles for the 2019 New Year’s Gala. The company has released a series of services with voice-to-text as the core function, including the iFLYREC 2.0 smart event system, iFLYREC M1 transcription robot and AI Note for recording and transcription.

iFLYTEK says its automatic transcribing service can cut subtitle production time from one hour to five minutes, with accuracy rates reaching 95 percent.

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AI’s impact on China’s most important festival is bound to ignite even more interest, discussion and innovations across the country as the tech continues advancing at a rapid pace. Who knows what wonders await us in the Year of the Rat?

Journalist: Fangyu Cai | Editor: Michael Sarazen

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