Artificial Intelligence, but Sympathy Feels All Too Real ; Chinese Warm to Xiaoice, a Computer Program with Ability to Discuss Feelings

By John Markoff; Paul Mozur | International New York Times, August 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Artificial Intelligence, but Sympathy Feels All Too Real ; Chinese Warm to Xiaoice, a Computer Program with Ability to Discuss Feelings


John Markoff; Paul Mozur, International New York Times


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.

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 (pronounced Shao-ice) 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 is also making the 2013 film "Her," in which the actor Joaquin Phoenix plays a character who falls in love with a computer operating system, seem less like science fiction.

"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.

Since Xiaoice collects vast amounts of intimate details on individuals, the program inevitably raises questions about users' privacy. But Microsoft says it enforces strict guidelines so that nothing is stored long term.

"We don't keep track of user conversations with Xiaoice," Mr. Yao said. "We need to know the question, so we store it, but then we delete it. We don't keep any of the data. We have a company policy to delete the user data."

However, the company acknowledged that it would keep certain general information, such as a user's mood, for a limited time so it could ask follow-up questions later. When users interact with Xiaoice through a website such as Weibo, the service conforms to the privacy policies of the independent operator, Microsoft said.

Chatbot programs have existed since the first days of interactive computing in the mid-1960s. Joseph Weizenbaum, an M.I.T. computer scientist, wrote a program called Eliza that fascinated an earlier generation of college students. Since then, chatbots have been used as a measure of computer intelligence.

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.

"We will be able to build systems that understand natural language much better," said Yoshua Bengio, a University of Montreal computer scientist who is one of the pioneers in the field. "That will, in particular, drive -- and be motivated by -- advances in user interfaces, dialogue, question answering and personal assistants."

Deep learning is a sophisticated version of a decades-old approach to machine learning known as artificial neural networks. Inspired by the behavior of biological neurons, artificial neural networks recognize patterns in speech, language and images. …

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