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Meet South Korea's new artificial intelligence-based virtual avatars

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Screenshot Copyright AFP
Copyright AFP
By Oceane Duboust with AFP
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Meet Zaein, one of South Korea's most active virtual humans, created with artificial intelligence (AI).

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With sleek black hair and discreet makeup, Zaein can sing, read the news and sell luxury clothes - but she’s not just any South Korean star.

Zaein is one of the most active virtual avatars in the country and is powered by deepfake technology.

South Korea is embracing artificial intelligence (AI) in many fields, from news using Deepfake presenters to AI pastors.

Deepfake avatars are trending

Zaein is a creation of the company Pulse9. Specialising in AI, this South Korean company has already created several digital characters for some of the country's biggest conglomerates, including retail giant Shinsegae.

They are "working on developing the technology to broaden AI human use," Park Ji-Eun, the company's CEO, told AFP.

In the homeland of K-pop, star agencies were the first to invest in the development of virtual avatars.

Pulse9 wants “to show that these virtual humans aren't just fantasy idols but can coexist with humans as colleagues and friends," Park said.

"Virtual humans are basically capable of carrying out much of what real people do," she added, though human input is still needed in the process, “until a really strong AI is developed”.

Zaein's face was designed using a process known as deep learning, which teaches computers with a method based on the human brain. The algorithm scanned the faces of K-pop stars over the past twenty years.

A dozen human beings, each with different talents (singing, dancing, acting...), helped to build the character of Zaein by being overlapped with the deepfake.

"I think it can be a good practice for people who want to become celebrities and that's what appealed to me," one of the actors told AFP. She could not be named due to company policy.

"I'd love to try acting as a man if I can manage my voice well, and maybe a foreigner -- something that I can't become in real life," she added.

AI flourishing in South Korea

The country is “a global leader in the production of AI patents, and is an important contributor to AI research,” according to a brief from Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

It’s also an important manufacturer of semiconductors, which are necessary for AI development.

AI also appears to be a rapidly growing market, with $2.76 billion (€2.60 billion) invested in privately held South Korean AI companies in 2021, according to Georgetown.

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Reuters has reported that the legal rules in South Korea are seen as less restrictive than the EU’s.

"In order for Korean companies to have strength in the global AI ecosystem, each company must first secure specialised technology for vertical AI," or AI designed and optimised for specific uses, LG AI research chief Kyunghoon Bae, told Reuters.

AI-powered prayer apps are also popular, according to The Korea Economic Daily.

Meadow, a Christian chatbot, claimed it secured 50,000 users within three days of its launch. Another tool, Biblely uses AI to create Deepfake audios after being trained with different church pastors’ recordings.

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