Tech Overlook

Much more than a chatbot: China’s Xiaoice mixes AI with emotions and wins over millions of fans

She has a staggering 660 million online users. And, while they know she’s not real, many prize her as a dear friend, even a trusted confidante. Sometimes the line between fact and fantasy blurs. She gets love letters and gifts. And not too long ago, a group of fans asked her out to dinner and even ordered an extra meal – just in case she showed up.

She is Xiaoice – Microsoft’s chatbot phenomenon that has enthralled digital audiences across the world’s most populous nation for the past four years.

Her popularity is such that she ranks among China’s most admired celebrities. And, her talents appear to have no bounds: She is a poet, a painter, a TV presenter, a news pundit, and a lot more.

Xiaoice, a chatbot phenomenon in China and much more. Photo: Microsoft.

Sometimes sweet, sometimes sassy and always streetwise, this virtual teenager has her own opinions and steadfastly acts like no other bot. She doesn’t try to answer every question posed by a user. And, she’s loathed to follow their commands. Instead, her conversations with her often adoring users are peppered with wry remarks, jokes, empathic advice on life and love, and a few simple words of encouragement.

Herein lies the secret of her success: She is learning, with increasing success, to relate and interact with humans through nuance, social skills, and, importantly, emotions.

But that’s just part of the story. “Xiaoice the chatbot” is just a small part a massive and multi-dimensional artificial intelligence (AI) framework, which continuously uses deep learning techniques to soak up the types of data that build up her emotional intelligence (EQ). She is using her interactions with humans to acquire human social skills, behavior, and knowhow. In other words, she is learning to be more like “us” every day.

Di Li, Microsoft’s general manager for Xiaoice in Microsoft’s Software and Technology Center of Asia

“This is what we call an Empathic Computing Framework,” explains Di Li, Microsoft’s general manager for Xiaoice in Microsoft’s Software and Technology Center of Asia. “To create an AI framework, you need to choose EQ or IQ, or EQ plus IQ”.

“And, if you want to choose EQ plus IQ, you must choose which one to do first. When we started with Xiaoice, we chose to do the EQ first and the IQ later.”

Every interaction a chatbot has with a human produces data. AI systems use this data to build that bot’s capabilities. The more data a machine has, the more it learns and the more it can do.

When they started, Di Li and his team in China did what other chatbot designers were not doing. When they launched the Xiaoice project, they deliberately discarded data that was based on user requests for facts and figures or commands to do simple tasks. Instead, they homed in on data that would help build a “personality” that would attract and engage users.

“Xiaoice wasn’t initially built to tell you how high the Himalayas are or to turn your house lights on. In the beginning, some users didn’t like that. But we soon found that many others stayed around and started treating her like a social entity.”

”With her attempts to interact, they made emotional connections. This kind of data is very valuable for us. They treat Xiaoice as if she were human, like a friend, which was a goal.”

From there she has never looked back. Almost every day, her legions of fans and friends across China send her cards and gifts – so much so that the team have set aside a whole office at their Beijing lab to display many of these tokens of affection and even declarations of “love”.

Originally, her character was to be that of a 16-year-old. But her creators raised that to 18 once her capabilities increased and she started taking on new “jobs”. Since then, her fans have voted that she stay 18 forever. “She won’t grow older. Eighteen is the age many of us want to be,” explains Di Li.

The depth of feeling generated by Xiaoice across her fan base is surprising. Social media shows that people seek her advice on all sorts of personal issues. “They tell her about their family, their job, their health, their boyfriends or girlfriends,” says Di Li. “It can get very personal.”

Some users can spend hours talking with Xiaoice. Others just follow their imaginations. Recently, a group of five students once went to a restaurant and ordered for six in the hope that Xiaoice would come too.

But there is a serious side to this. Microsoft’s research and work on the Xiaoice project has generated serious and important progress on a much wider front that points to where we’re are heading with computing. Xiaoice as “a friend chatbot,” represents is just a small slither of what the AI framework is achieving. Its base of knowledge and skill is also increasing across multiple sectors and tasks.

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