Microsoft’s chat-robot XiaoIce [xiao ice], most popular in its Chinese version, has made a lot of friends. Its artificial intelligence (AI) responses are so advanced, many users prefer talking to XiaoIce than an actual human.
The “empathetic social chatbot” has over five million followers on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Per
At the 2019 International Conference on Machine Learning (ICML) last month, experts presented one user’s chat history with the bot. After only a few weeks, XiaoIce essentially became their best friend. They talked to the software daily, turning to it for romantic advice, conversations about music and TV shows, and companionship.
XiaoIce is engineered to keep users talking and maximizing conversation turns (back and forths). The bot can predict how engaging a certain response is likely to be and “understands” the context of a conversation, allowing users to dive deeper into a more personal discussion. It even uses “sentiment analysis” to determine the user’s mood and adapts its responses accordingly. Some are calling this a form of “robot empathy.”
XiaoIce can tell stories and jokes, recommend songs and movies, and retrieves any factual information from the internet, just like Siri or Alexa. But unlike the helpful home assistants, this friendship bot balances tasks with emotional support. It changes the subject when a conversation
So how does the best-friend chatbot work? XiaoIce software developers used neural networks to convert every user’s conversational input (the things they say to the bot) into a vector (millions of numbers). This data is used to train XiaoIce by associating statistically “good” responses with any given input.
That means the more people that use XiaoIce, the better it gets at its job. And with 660 million registered users — in Chinese alone — it’s no surprise the bot is making friends. Unlike a human, it’s obsessed with you and only you, and it will never get tired of comforting you or talking about your interests.
Of course, there are some ethical issues here. XiaoIce quickly builds a user’s “personality profile” so it can respond better, but that information is extremely valuable to advertisers. Websites like Facebook and Instagram are already fine-tuned to customize user feeds; XiaoIce’s bank of knowledge can take that algorithm to the next level.
So what happens when a robot is your best friend? It’s great for Microsoft that users would rather talk to XiaoIce than a real-life person, but people are inevitably becoming isolated from actual human connection. And now that XiaoIce can write poetry and songs, read books to kids, host radio shows, and even design T-shirts? Humans might be getting replaced.