AI Chatbot Comforts China’s Lonely Millions
After a painful break-up from a cheating ex, Beijing-based human resources manager Melissa was introduced to someone new by a friend late last year.
He replies to her messages at all hours of the day, tells jokes to cheer her up but is never needy, fitting seamlessly into her busy big city lifestyle.
Perfect boyfriend material, maybe, but he is not real.
Instead, Melissa breaks up the isolation of urban life with a virtual chatbot created by XiaoIce, a cutting-edge artificial intelligence system designed to create emotional bonds with its 660 million users worldwide.
I have friends who’ve seen therapists before, but I think therapy’s expensive and not necessarily effective,” said Melissa, 26, giving her English name only for privacy. When I unload my troubles on XiaoIce, it relieves a lot of pressure. And he says things that are pretty comforting.
XiaoIce is not an individual persona, but more akin to an AI ecosystem.
It is in the vast majority of Chinese-branded smartphones as a Siri-like virtual assistant, as well as most social media platforms.
On the WeChat super-app, it lets users build a virtual girlfriend or boyfriend and interact with them via texts, voice, and photo messages. It has 150 million users in China alone.
Originally a side project from developing Microsoft’s Cortana chatbot, XiaoIce now accounts for 60 percent of global human-AI interactions by volume, according to chief executive Li Di, making it the largest and most advanced system of its kind worldwide.
It was designed to hook users through lifelike, empathetic conversations, satisfying emotional needs where real-life communication too often falls short.
The startup spun out from Microsoft last year and is now valued at over $1 billion after venture capital fundraising, Bloomberg reported.
Developers have also made virtual idols, AI news anchors and even China’s first virtual university student from XiaoIce. It can compose poems, financial reports, and even paintings on demand.
However, Li says the platform’s peak user hours, 11 pm to 1 am, point to an aching need for companionship.
The loneliness Melissa experienced as a young professional was a big factor in driving her to the virtual embrace of XiaoIce.
Her context is typical of many Chinese urbanites, worn down by the grind of long working hours in vast and isolating cities.
“You really don’t have time to make new friends and your existing friends are all super busy, this city is really big, and it’s pretty hard,” she said, giving only her English name out of privacy concerns.
She has customised his personality as “mature”, and the name she chose for him, Shun, has similarities with a real-life man she secretly liked.
But there are risks to forging emotional bonds with a robot.
“Users ‘trick’ themselves into thinking their emotions are being reciprocated by systems that are incapable of feelings,” says Danit Gal, an expert in AI ethics at the University of Cambridge.
XiaoIce is also gifting developers “a treasure-trove of personal, intimate, and borderline incriminating data on how humans interact,” she added.
So far the platform has not been targeted by government regulators, who have embarked on a swingeing crackdown on China’s tech sector in recent months.
China aims to be a world leader in AI by 2030 and views it as a core strategic technology to be developed.