Friday, August 07, 2015

Are Chatbots destined to become our most sympathetic listeners?

Markoff and Mozur do a fascinating piece in the NYTimes describing how millions of young Chinese use a smartphone program as their intimate companion.
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.
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. 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 conversations. As a result, Xiaoice has a database of responses that are human and current — she is fond of using emojis, too. (Xiaoice translates roughly to “Little Bing,” after the Microsoft search engine.)
The Microsoft App website lists a few simple English language chat bots, with only a few reviews, nothing like the sophisticated A.I. software being used by the Chinese Microsoft program in Beijing.

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