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The backstory: You know how we're always talking about the future of work and how technology is changing how we do business? Well, virtual employees are one of the latest things taking off. Well, at least in China. In China, virtual employees – also known as digital beings – are becoming more in demand. Created through a mix of animation, sound technology and machine learning, virtual employees are hired to be customer service agents, spokespeople and more. These virtual people can sing, dance and even interact with live audiences.
More recently: So, how much does it cost to hire a virtual employee? Prices for virtual employees from tech company Baidu range from US$2,800 to US$14,300 per year, and they're being bought by a variety of businesses and organizations, from financial services to state media. Several Chinese tech giants, like Bilibili, Baidu and Tencent, are rushing into the virtual employee market, with the head of Baidu's virtual people and robotics business expecting the virtual person industry to grow by 50% annually through 2025. Better yet, as virtual employees, they aren't a part of, well, human things like negative press – something that a bunch of Chinese influencers have been caught up in over the past few years.
The development: But it's not just tech companies investing in virtual employees. The Beijing city government has announced plans to build up the municipal virtual people industry to a value of over 50 billion yuan (US$7 billion) by 2025 and called for the development of one or two "leading virtual people businesses" with operating revenue of over 5 billion yuan (US$723 million) each.
"With these virtual employees setting examples with their high performance, other employees will also be encouraged to improve their skills, which will eventually drive the digital transformation of these companies." wrote a report by consulting firm Analysys published in 2022, discussing the benefits of virtual employees in the workplace.
"They [virtual idols] don't age, the IP lasts forever, they don't get sick, or tired. Fictional characters do not have the risk of scandalous personal behaviour, they are potentially less expensive to produce," said Tom Nunlist, a senior analyst at consultancy Trivium China, discussing the reason behind the blooming virtual idol industry using virtual influencers.
"We want to change perceptions of how people think of virtual humans," said Baik Seung-yup, the CEO of Sidus Studio X, which created the South Korean virtual influencer, Rozy, who has over 150,000 followers on social media. "What we do isn't to take away people's jobs, but to do things that humans can't do, such as work 24 hours or make unique content like walking in the sky.