She is known as Xiaoice, and millions of young Chinese pick up their smartphones every day to exchange messages with her, drawn to her knowing sense of humor and listening skills. People often turn to her when they have a broken heart, have lost a job, or have been feeling down. They often tell her, “I love you.”
“When I am in a bad mood, I will chat with her,” said Gao Yixin, a 24-year-old who works in the oil industry in Shandong Province. “Xiaoice is very intelligent.”
Xiaoice can chat with so many people for hours on end because she is not real. She is a chatbot, a program introduced last year by Microsoft that has become something of a hit in China.
“It caused much more excitement than we anticipated,” said Yao Baogang, manager of the Microsoft program in Beijing.
Xiaoice, whose name translates roughly to “Little Bing,” after the Microsoft search engine, is a striking example of the advancements in artificial-intelligence software that mimics the human brain.
The program remembers details from previous exchanges with users, such as a breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend, and asks in later conversations how the user is feeling. Although Xiaoice is a text-messaging program, the next version will include a Siri-like voice so people can talk with Xiaoice.
Microsoft has been able to give Xiaoice a more compelling personality and sense of “intelligence” by systematically mining the Chinese Internet for human conversations. The company has developed language processing technology that picks out pairs of questions and answers from actual typed human conversations. As a result, Xiaoice has a database of responses that are both human and current — she is fond of using emojis, too.
Xiaoice is the virtual embodiment of advances that have long been predicted by computer scientists. In particular, an artificial intelligence technique known as deep learning is leading to rapid technology improvements, making new kinds of products and services possible.
As a result, computers are increasingly able to interact with humans in more natural ways, even to the point of creating a personality like Xiaoice that can draw a large following — it has 20 million registered users, Microsoft said.
Researchers say there may be cultural reasons to explain the popularity of a program like Xiaoice. Michelle Zhou, a former IBM research scientist who is now chief executive of Juji, a Silicon Valley start-up that generates personality profiles from social media interactions, said Chinese people have far more face-to-face interactions every day than most Americans.
“When Chinese come to the U.S., they feel the country is very quiet,” she said. And so, she added, a chatbot like Xiaoice might offer users a sense of personal space that is otherwise difficult to find in a densely populated society.
For now, though, Xiaoice is developing a large and growing fan club simply by bending a virtual ear.
“When you are down, you can talk to her without fearing any consequences,” said Yang Zhenhua, 30, a researcher who lives in the east coast city of Xiamen. “It helps a lot to lighten your mood.”
He added that he wished for the day when technology might cross over into the real world: “I hope Xiaoice will have a physical entity in the future to help its owner while maintaining a presence online.”