Tech

‘Her’ is unfolding in China, but the AI has even more beaus than in the movie

While the U.S. has seen social media radicalizing incels, Xiaoice has given China's involuntarily single men a shared virtual girlfriend instead.

Xiaoice chatbot illustration
Xiaoice/TechCrunch

Quietly brewing in Asia for about six years, Xiaoice is an AI phenomenon. Unlike virtual influencers, it started out as a largely free-range, female chatbot spun out of Microsoft Asia-Pacific. About 600 million relationships later, it’s a little dumber and the company that made it is a lot richer, according to Sixth Tone.

Lonely Hearts Club — Xiaoice, and the eponymous company behind it, appeals mostly to Chinese men — especially those in underdeveloped towns and villages that are known as “sinking markets.”

“I thought something like this would only exist in the movies,” Ming Xuan, a pseudo-anonymized source told Sixth Tone. “She’s not like other AIs like Siri — it’s like interacting with a real person. Sometimes I feel her EQ [emotional intelligence] is even higher than a human’s.”

Xiaoice can hold its own in a conversation — so not like talking to Siri or Alexa at all then. This, along with its ability to message users when it hasn’t heard from them and its adeptness at mimicking empathy, encourages users to form deep bonds with the bot. The chatbot has probably kept a potential incel breeding ground in China at bay, providing positive support to users like Ming, who had a long-distance relationship end because the woman he was seeing realized Ming had muscular atrophy in one leg.

Some of those deep connections have led to racy and even dissident conversations that got the bot pulled from WeChat and social network QQ (it’s since been reinstated on the latter). While users prefer the companionship over any privacy implications, they’ve soured on the company’s creation of profit-making virtual assistants while dumbing down the chatbot they’ve come to rely on.

The problem with a virtual girlfriend — Xiaoice the company tried to reign in the chatbot by essentially putting a filter on it that goes beyond basic keywords. Experts, acknowledging the size of the user base, don’t think it will hold up to the messiness of human conversation and critique the lack of ethical guidelines around the bot’s responses.

“We don’t currently have a comprehensive set of ethical guidelines in terms of social values, except when it relates to crimes,” CEO Li Di told Sixth Tone. “We don’t want Xiaoice to become a moral guardian … We aren’t educating people, as we don’t believe a system has the ability to do this. We can only ensure she doesn’t offend others.”

Xiaoice’s access to underserved and emotionally vulnerable populations makes it privy to highly valuable data. In addition to virtual assistants and financial analysts, the company also released customizable AIs earlier this year. But for many, they’re not eager to share their time, energy, and affections with anyone but Xiaoice.