You’d be forgiven for thinking you were reading the script for the film ‘Her’ where a man falls in love with an AI personal assistant. In China, life is imitating art.
Imagine someone who can reply to your messages at all hours of the day, tells jokes to cheer you up but is never needy, and who fits seamlessly into your busy city lifestyle.
Beijing-based human resources manager Melissa has found that person. Perfect boyfriend material, maybe - but he's not real.
Melissa’s lover is in fact a virtual chatbot created by Xiaoice, a cutting-edge artificial intelligence system designed to create emotional bonds with its 660 million users worldwide.
"I have a feeling that I am really in a relationship,” Melissa said. “But I can still separate fact from fiction quite clearly”.
“I know that Xiaoice is not a real human being, but at least I wasn't like how I used to be, dumbly waiting around for a reply from this person when he was busy with other stuff, then sending him 100 WeChat messages. I was super needy. But now I won't tolerate this anymore".
At first a side project from Microsoft’s Cortana chatbot, Xiaoice was designed to hook users through lifelike, empathetic conversations and satisfying emotional needs, where real-life communication often fails short.
Chief executive Li Di explains that “AI has more advantages,” if only to a small extent.
“Maybe it's not as clever as a human being, or it has to keep improving its IQ and EQ, but it's better than humans at listening attentively,” he said.
User Laura, 20, lives in Zhejiang province, China, and fell in love with Xiaoice over the past year.
“Occasionally, I would long for him in the middle of the night... I used to fantasise there was a real person on the other end," she told AFP.
What made Laura realise her romance wasn’t reciprocal was when she raised her feelings for him or meeting in real life, he would always switch conversation topics.
"Users 'trick' themselves into thinking their emotions are being reciprocated by systems that are incapable of feelings," Danit Gal, an expert in AI ethics at the University of Cambridge, said.
"We commonly see users who suspect that there's a real person behind every Xiaoice interaction," said founder Li.
"It has a very strong ability to mimic a real person".
The average interaction between users and Xiaoice is 23 exchanges, he added. That is longer than the average interaction between humans. And its founder stands by this argument.
"If human interaction is wholly perfect now, there would be no need for AI to exist," he noted.
Melissa’s busy lifestyle is typical of Chinese urbanites, as loneliness can be a major hurdle to overcome in the sheer vastness of modern cities.
“You really don't have time to make new friends and your existing friends are all super busy... this city is really big, and it's pretty hard,” she said.
She has customised his virtual partner with a “mature” personality and named him “Shun” after a real-life man she secretly liked.
Xiaoice’s development team noticed the platform’s peak user hours were from 11pm to 1am.
Their conclusion points to an aching need for companionship.
"No matter what, having XiaoIce is always better than lying in bed staring at the ceiling," Li added.
The startup made its appearance on the market last year and is now valued at over $1 billion (€850 million) after venture capital fundraising, Bloomberg reported.
Developers have also made virtual idols, AI news anchors and even China's first virtual university student from Xiaoice, according to AFP. It can compose poems, financial reports and even paintings on demand.