Chinese influencers turn to AI clones for livestreams

    Influencers and celebrities like Calvin Chen are using AI clones for livestreams, sparking debate about authenticity in the burgeoning digital human market.
    AI clones could enable brands to control their messaging with precision, ensuring consistent brand representation and operational efficiency. But significant hurdles remain. Image: Viya Company
      Published   in Technology

    Liu Run, a Douyin business influencer with more than 1 million fans, has been using a digital clone for months. He says very few viewers have been able to distinguish deepfakes from the real people they are based upon.

    Liu has made good use of his clone to produce videos in which he discusses tips for managers, shares business insights, and recounts anecdotes about entrepreneurship.

    “I stare at you every day: is it true [really you], or false?” Douyin user @haode0 commented on one video.

    "Celebrities can now make money while lying idle."

    While virtual clones are efficient, they haven't always been well-received. In fact, the proliferation of livestreaming using clones has irked some netizens. Weibo users such as @bachuanxiaoji (@扒圈小记) commented online that “celebrities can now make money while lying idle.”

    A clone of popular actor and singer Calvin Chen, previously of boy band Fahrenheit, broadcast an AI-generated livestream in September last year during which he ate chicken feet for 15 hours straight for his 9 million followers. The livestream was labeled as an AI video.

    Chen immediately lost 7,000 followers in the three days following the video.

    Calvin Chen’s AI clone went on a 15-hour long livestream. Image: CPop
    Calvin Chen’s AI clone went on a 15-hour long livestream. Image: CPop

    Attack of the clones: Implications for brands#

    The integration of AI clones and virtual influencers in Chinese e-commerce and livestreaming represents a significant evolution in brand engagement strategies.

    However, this innovative approach to selling comes with complex implications for brands.

    AI clones could enable brands to control their messaging with precision, ensuring consistent brand representation and operational efficiency. This translates to potentially lower costs and reduced unpredictability compared to traditional influencer partnerships.

    But significant hurdles remain. For example, many consumers seek authenticity in their influencer interactions.

    Chen's loss of followers after deploying an AI clone highlights the risks of a consumer backlash. Brands need to carefully balance their use of AI with genuine human engagement to maintain consumer trust and authenticity.

    Additionally, over-reliance on AI could be perceived as a lack of effort or creativity, possibly damaging reputations. Brands must navigate these perceptions cautiously, ensuring that their use of AI complements rather than replaces human creativity and effort.

    As the field is at the nascent stage, another hurdle clone users face is the prospect of tighter regulation.

    On October 11 last year, Chinese authorities released proposed guidelines for companies deploying generative AI technologies.

    The draft regulations stipulate that individuals whose biometric data is to be replicated via AI must give written consent for its use.

    However, the guidelines are vague on how this content should be identified and presented to the public. In a related development, the social media platform Douyin has banned live broadcasts that are conducted solely by AI.

    China's digital human market: What’s next?#

    Through AI, clone-making is becoming accessible to a wider audience. The technology runs as cheap as a mobile app at the lower end, and only requires 60 seconds of footage to begin training for a livestream clone. State-of-the-art solutions that output a spitting image of the influencer in question cost thousands of dollars. Oftentimes, the trick lies in having a high enough volume of video input, which is something that’s easy to achieve for TikTok influencers.

    China's digital human market size is expected to reach 1.5 billion USD by 2026, according to IDC forecasts, and Chinese livestreamers had been projected to generate approximately $689 billion in sales in 2023, accounting for over 11% of the total e-commerce sector.

    Big players like Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba are innovating AI cloning technology, and even Xiaoice, Microsoft’s spin-off chatbot for China, has announced a program seemingly aimed at influencer and celebrity AI cloning.

    Qiu Yiwu, an entrepreneur in China, believes that the commercialization of AI human cloning is an inevitable trend.

    "This is essentially IP licensing, which is a type of virtual economy and digitizes people," Qiu shared on Chinese blog ShenRan.

    Discover more
    Daily BriefAnalysis, news, and insights delivered to your inbox.