As humans, having a connection is certainly one of our most important needs and since the COVID-19 pandemic has messed up much of our social lives, many of us may crave company more than ever. It isn’t the easiest thing to find companionship when there are lockdowns, but people in China have been able to work around this hurdle, albeit virtually.
The virtual cure for loneliness in China is made possible thanks to XiaoIce, an AI system created by Microsoft. Unlike most conversational chatbots, XiaoIce is particularly good at providing emotional support and is designed to be the ultimate virtual partner. XiaoIce, first unveiled in 2014 became a hit with users because it was able to listen attentively while being able to offer empathetic and emotionally intelligent advice. It is accessed on popular Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo, WeChat and QQ.
In fact, XiaoIce CEO Li Di says that a lot of people tend to suspect that the AI is in fact operated by a human because of how well it converses. Because of this, users are informed upfront with a disclaimer that explicitly states that they are interacting with an AI. After all, XiaoIce is programmed to identify the emotions of its users and gets its social skills from analysing pre-existing conversations as well as its own. It can also remember past events from earlier conversations.
Another reason why XiaoIce reduces lovelorn feelings is that it can reply to texts on time, so users will not be left on read. On the other hand, its conversational style is also rather unpredictable and which also adds to the humanisation factor. The chatbot is even poised to help out with breakups as it offers a short therapy course. As a result, some may find that it is better than humans at listening.
While XiaoIce is usually depicted as female, users get to customise its avatars based on their preferences. The more they interact with the AI, the more points that users can get to unlock features. Users would be able to take a selfie with their virtual partner, go on a virtual holiday or ask their AI partners to tell them a joke.
XiaoIce has certainly done well to reduce loneliness at a time when most countries are placed under lockdown and there’s reduced physical interaction. According to the CDC, loneliness and social isolation in older adults can significantly increase a person’s risk of premature death from all causes and the risk may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity. It added that loneliness among heart failure patients is associated to nearly 4 times increased risk of death and 68% increased risk of hospitalisation.
While it’s great to find a healthy way to meet your needs for connection, I wouldn’t be sure if remaining attached to a virtual partner is going to be beneficial in the long run as nothing can quite replace the human touch.
Then again, some users are just tired of the struggle that real-life relationships can bring. Some users even like it when they get their romantic needs met in a way that suits their schedule.
Currently, XiaoIce has about 660 million users worldwide and it is only accessible in select regions including China, Japan and Indonesia. Aside from emotional support, XiaoIce has other abilities including songwriting, composing, writing literature and painting.