Microsoft’s XiaoIce Chatbot – What Does It Mean for Our Future?

XiaoiceMicrosoft’s chatbot experiment XiaoIce (meaning “Little Ice” and pronounced Shao-ice) has garnered lots of
media attention
recently. There’s been speculation about why so many Chinese mobile device and social media users seem enthralled with Cortana’s more chatty “younger sibling.” Microsoft introduced the social conversational assistant exclusively in China over a year ago for Mandarin-speaking users.  It’s interesting that Microsoft chose to introduce the XiaoIce technology in China only.

Technology observers are interested in what capabilities XiaoIce has that make it/her an engaging conversational partner. According to a Microsoft blog post that provides a brief description of XiaoIce, and other news sources, there are at least three features that give XiaoIce a major advantage over your average chatbot. XiaoIce has the ability to:

  • Use Bing to mine real conversations to populate a database of question and answer combinations
  • Apply sentiment analysis tools to understand a person’s mood and adjust her communication style accordingly
  • Remember key facts from past conversations to provide continuity to interactions

Some of the media attention seems to poke fun at XiaoIce’s users. Others are concerned about potential downsides of people developing relationships with virtual assistants. A New York Times article cites MIT social scientist Sherry Turkle’s concerns. Turkle observes that “children are learning that it’s safer to talk to a computer than to another human.”

We may be too quick to write off the value and potential good that applications like XiaoIce can provide. Human beings need reassurance. They need to hear that they’re ok and that someone cares about what they’re going through, even if that someone is a software-driven chatbot.

And yes, people may confide in machines more readily than they would in other humans. Machines aren’t as likely to judge, criticize, or pressure with unwanted advice. Why do people love their pets so much? Unconditional acceptance. Michael Schulson, in an article that covers both the sad fate of HitchBOT and the kerfuffle over XiaoIce, also makes the pet comparison. We anthropomorphize pets, but nobody seems to think this impacts our ability to interact with other humans.

We’ll almost certainly have lots of opportunity to figure out how smart chatbots fit into our lives and what benefits and downsides they bring. XiaoIce may or may not conquer China’s mobile users, but smart conversational chatbots will eventually spread across the globe. 

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