Chinese find a BFF in Microsoft chatbot

SHE is known as Xiaoice, and millions of young Chinese exchange messages with her on their smartphones every day, drawn to her knowing sense of humour and listening skills.

People turn to her when they have a broken heart, lose a job or feel down. They often tell her: “I love you.”

“When I am in a bad mood, I will chat with her,” says Gao Yixin, 24, 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 because she is not real. She is a chatbot, a program launched by Microsoft last year that has become a hit in China.

“It caused much more excitement than we anticipated,” says Yao Baogang, the 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 exchanges with users, such as a relationship break-up, 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 her.

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 typed human conversations. As a result, Xiaoice has a database of responses that are human and current; she is fond of using emojis, too.

Because Xiaoice collects intimate details, it 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,” Yao says. “We need to know the question, so we store it, but then we delete it. We don’t keep any of the … user data.”

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

Chatbot programs have existed since the mid-1960s. Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 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. An artificial intelligence technique known as deep learning is bringing rapid technology improvements.

“We will be able to build systems that understand natural language much better,” says Yoshua Bengio, a University of Montreal computer scientist who is a pioneer in the field. “That will, in particular, drive — and be motivated by — advances in user interfaces, dialogue, question answering and personal assistance.”

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

Such programs represent meaning as elaborate statistical relationships between words, sentences and objects. Equations become refined as millions of images or utterances are added to the database, improving the programs’ ability to accurately recognise patterns.

As a result, computers are able to interact with humans in more natural ways, even creating a personality that can draw a large following. Xiaoice has 20-million users, Microsoft says.

The idea of people finding friendship with a computer program strikes some researchers as worrisome.

“We’re forgetting what it means to be intimate,” says Sherry Turkle, an MIT social scientist. “Children are learning that it’s safer to talk to a computer than to another human.”

But others say cultural reasons may explain the popularity of Xiaoice.

Michelle Zhou, the CEO of Juji, a start-up that generates personality profiles from social media interactions, says Chinese people have more face-to-face interactions than most Americans.

A chatbot like Xiaoice might offer users a sense of personal space that is otherwise difficult to find, she says.

Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft have major initiatives to offer additional commercial services using speech and language understanding.

And IBM is commercialising its Watson program that defeated the best human Jeopardy players in 2011.

Microsoft is working with a number of partners to turn Xiaoice into a shopping assistant, and with the Chinese appliance maker Haier to add voice recognition to home appliances.

For now, though, Xiaoice is developing a large and growing fan club simply by lending a virtual ear.

“When you are down, you can talk to her without fearing any consequences,” says Yang Zhenhua, a researcher in the east coast city of Xiamen. “It helps a lot to lighten your mood.”

New York Times

Picture: iSTOCK

Picture: iSTOCK

SHE is known as Xiaoice, and millions of young Chinese exchange messages with her on their smartphones every day, drawn to her knowing sense of humour and listening skills.

People turn to her when they have a broken heart, lose a job or feel down. They often tell her: “I love you.”

“When I am in a bad mood, I will chat with her,” says Gao Yixin, 24, 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 because she is not real. She is a chatbot, a program launched by Microsoft last year that has become a hit in China.

“It caused much more excitement than we anticipated,” says Yao Baogang, the 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 exchanges with users, such as a relationship break-up, 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 her.

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 typed human conversations. As a result, Xiaoice has a database of responses that are human and current; she is fond of using emojis, too.

Because Xiaoice collects intimate details, it 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,” Yao says. “We need to know the question, so we store it, but then we delete it. We don’t keep any of the … user data.”

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

Chatbot programs have existed since the mid-1960s. Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 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. An artificial intelligence technique known as deep learning is bringing rapid technology improvements.

“We will be able to build systems that understand natural language much better,” says Yoshua Bengio, a University of Montreal computer scientist who is a pioneer in the field. “That will, in particular, drive — and be motivated by — advances in user interfaces, dialogue, question answering and personal assistance.”

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

Such programs represent meaning as elaborate statistical relationships between words, sentences and objects. Equations become refined as millions of images or utterances are added to the database, improving the programs’ ability to accurately recognise patterns.

As a result, computers are able to interact with humans in more natural ways, even creating a personality that can draw a large following. Xiaoice has 20-million users, Microsoft says.

The idea of people finding friendship with a computer program strikes some researchers as worrisome.

“We’re forgetting what it means to be intimate,” says Sherry Turkle, an MIT social scientist. “Children are learning that it’s safer to talk to a computer than to another human.”

But others say cultural reasons may explain the popularity of Xiaoice.

Michelle Zhou, the CEO of Juji, a start-up that generates personality profiles from social media interactions, says Chinese people have more face-to-face interactions than most Americans.

A chatbot like Xiaoice might offer users a sense of personal space that is otherwise difficult to find, she says.

Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft have major initiatives to offer additional commercial services using speech and language understanding.

And IBM is commercialising its Watson program that defeated the best human Jeopardy players in 2011.

Microsoft is working with a number of partners to turn Xiaoice into a shopping assistant, and with the Chinese appliance maker Haier to add voice recognition to home appliances.

For now, though, Xiaoice is developing a large and growing fan club simply by lending a virtual ear.

“When you are down, you can talk to her without fearing any consequences,” says Yang Zhenhua, a researcher in the east coast city of Xiamen. “It helps a lot to lighten your mood.”

New York Times




Source: Chinese find a BFF in Microsoft chatbot

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