Details 13:36 06 May 2024

Ukraine’s foreign ministry unveils AI spokesperson: What this digital solution means and why it’s needed

Ukraine has been at the forefront of digital transformation, developing its renowned governmental app Diia, electronic documents, defense tech inventions, and more. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently introduced a new digital solution — an AI-based spokesperson named Viktoria Shi. Rubryka spoke with an expert to understand why and how the new virtual representative for Ukraine's Ministry of Foreign Affairs came about.

What's the problem?

Ihor Rozkladai, the key expert in media law and social media content moderation at the Center for Democracy and Rule of Law (CEDEM), believes that the introduction of Viktoria Ai is caused by a staff shortage in government agencies.

The job market is seeing more vacancies, but people are not rushing to fill them because increasing responsibilities and lower pay of public servants can't compete with private sector wages. As a result, there simply aren't enough people in government agencies, including ministries. So, officials are having to find various solutions to address this shortage.

"The staffing issue in the ministries is actually quite serious. I know that the lack of staff has reached a critical point in some departments. Unfortunately, we don't really talk about it," says Ihor Rozkladai.

Віртуальна речниця МЗС України

Ihor Rozkladai is the CEDEM's key expert in media law and social media content moderation. Photo: CEDEM

What solution does the foreign ministry offer?

Using artificial intelligence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine created a digital personality named Viktoria Shi, whose surname is translated from Ukrainian as "AI." As revealed in a greeting message from the new digital employee on May 1, she has become the ministry's official consular representative.

"My name is Viktoria Shi. I was created by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine using AI technology to quickly and efficiently inform you about consular matters," said the spokesperson in the message.

Viktoria Shi will share news about the work of consuls in protecting Ukrainian citizens abroad. She will also explain how the Ministry responds to emergencies overseas.

Віртуальна речниця МЗС України

Screenshot from a greeting message from Viktoria Shi. Photo: Ukraine's foreign ministry

Viktoria Shi is based on a real person—Rozali Nombree, a Ukrainian singer, influencer, and participant of the Ukrainian version of The Bachelor. The project team recorded and digitized her, and the singer agreed to participate in the project for free.

The ministry notes that the consular representative and her real-life prototype are two separate people. Only the digital person, Viktoria Shi, gives official statements on behalf of the consular service. She does not replace the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"The use of an AI-generated digital person for consular communication is primarily to save time and resources for the ministry. Real diplomats can be more efficient and focus on other tasks related to helping citizens," said the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Dmytro Kuleba.

The minister also mentioned that actively using AI technology in his department's work is not a gimmick but a requirement due to the war. He believes that to achieve the desired results for the country, all processes must be streamlined and one step ahead.

How does it work?

Expert Ihor Rozkladai comments that this technology is not new; we've seen virtual hosts before. The Center for Democracy and Rule of Law started using such avatars last year. For example, a digital copy of Ihor Rozkladai is used when they need to make short explanatory videos.

"It's a normal tool for saving resources or conveying specific information to the public. It's not as expensive as it might seem. For example, a subscription to D-ID Studio [a platform with generative AI tools to create moving and talking avatars] costs between $5 and $20 per month," he explains.

For a small investment, the consular representative might help relieve the workload for the ministry's diplomats. She won't replace one or several real people but could help offset the ministry staff shortage.

However, Ihor Rozkladai suggests waiting to see the effectiveness of the digital person in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In his view, only over time will we know if this was a costly gimmick or a useful tool for saving time and resources.

Віртуальна речниця МЗС України

Creation of Viktoria Shi. Photo: Forbes Ukraine

In addition to questions about the effectiveness of this solution, the public expresses concerns about the potential for manipulation, fakes, and fraud. The ministry has stated that they've put in place several levels of protection for Viktoria Shi to prevent digital counterfeits. One of the main safeguards is that each original video of the consular representative includes a QR code that leads to a text version of the same comment on the ministry's official website.

However, Ihor Rozkladai has some doubts about this method of protection. He suggests that scammers might create fake videos with forged QR codes over time. Theoretically, these QR codes could lead to spoofed websites that look just like the real ones, where scammers could spread misinformation or even steal personal data or money.

Still, he points out that this isn't entirely new — the same type of fraud already exists. The consular representative isn't causing it; scammers will adapt their tactics to target her.

"Can scammers fake a QR code? Sure. Will some people fall for it? Yes. But to counter it, you need media literacy skills. You should also check where the QR code is taking you and look at the website's domain," Rozkladai advises.

He also emphasizes that the platform where the ministry creates videos with the avatar must be well-secured. Otherwise, someone could hack the account and generate fake videos with Viktoria Shi, spreading false information.

Another concern about the emergence of a digital person in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is whether this is a way to avoid accountability. Some people think it might distract from the Ministry's decision to limit consular services for men of conscription age.

"Was this done to divert attention? I don't know, maybe it was. However, developing an avatar takes time. When we created one, my colleagues tested it for quite a while. It has to look fairly realistic, with proper lip-syncing. It may be just the timing and coincidence," the expert comments.

Others think this approach allows them to shift difficult topics to the virtual Viktoria Shi. So, when uncomfortable topics need to be discussed, the digital person can handle it, keeping real people out of the spotlight.

However, Ihor Rozkladai dismisses the idea of avoiding accountability. He explains that when we read Ministry of Foreign Affairs posts on their Facebook page or even on their website, we don't know who wrote them. The information from Viktoria Shi is just a voiced-over text written by the same people who write other ministry statements.

Adding to the speculation is the fact that she appeared just a few days after consular services were limited for Ukrainian men abroad, and her role is to communicate consular information. However, there is currently no evidence to support these online theories, so the ministry's move is likely nothing more than an attempt to offset staff shortages.

The CEDEM expert believes that the new consular representative isn't breaking new ground or changing the game. She is just another communication tool for the ministry, which means she inherits all the system's existing flaws.

However, Viktoria Shi could still be a useful resource-saving tool, but her effectiveness depends on how she's used.

"It's just a tool, like a knife. You can use it to cut something, but you might need to sharpen it if it doesn't cut. That requires some skill," he adds.


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