For Sympathetic Ear, More Chinese Turn to Smartphone Program

Photo: Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times

Excerpt from this article:

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.

…Researchers say there may be cultural reasons to explain the popularity of a program like Xiaoice. Michelle Zhou, a former IBM research scientist who is now the chief executive of Juji, a Silicon Valley start-up that generates personality profiles from social media interactions, said Chinese people have far more face-to-face interactions every day than most Americans.

“When Chinese come to the U.S., they feel the country is very quiet,” she said. And so, she added, a chatbot like Xiaoice might offer users a sense of personal space that is otherwise difficult to find in a densely populated society.

Dr. Zhou, who worked for several years in an IBM research laboratory in China, added that her friends had found unexpected, practical uses for Xiaoice, such as providing the illusion of proof for parents that they were in a relationship.

“Here, parents wouldn’t force their children to find a mate,” she said. “In China, if you’re 26 without a boyfriend or girlfriend, they were immensely worried.”

…“When you are down, you can talk to her without fearing any consequences,” said Yang Zhenhua, 30, a researcher who lives in the east coast city of Xiamen. “It helps a lot to lighten your mood.”

Advertisements