Highlights

  • Chinese social chatbot Xiaoice has over 660 million users worldwide.
  • Users can build virtual BF or GF with AI and talk to them via text, voice or photo messages.
  • Xiaoice raised its valuation to $1 bn in a July 2021 funding round.

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In-Depth | Romancing chatbots is the new reality for lonely singles

After online dating and matchmaking apps, people are now filling the romantic void in their life with virtual love from social chatbots. 

Would you like to date a romantic AI chatbot app?

Even with 7.9 billion people co-habiting the planet, the world can still be an oddly lonely place. And the pandemic has further intensified our need for connection.

Dating apps like Tinder and Bumble recorded their highest number of swipes, memberships and messages in the last year. But even if you couldn’t find a virtual ‘match,’ you can still fall in virtual love.

SEE MORE How post-pandemic dating will usher a new age of love

Sound like an episode of Black Mirror? Well, it's not.

Meet Xiaoice or Little Ice, the creator of emotionally intelligent chatbots used by more than 660 million people in the world. Claiming to be the world’s most popular social chatbot, it lets users build a virtual girlfriend or boyfriend and talk to them via texts, voice and photo messages.

Unlike a human partner, the chatbot replies to messages at all hours of the day, tells jokes, gives pep talks and seems to be the perfect companion in the life of a busy single. A human partner may never learn, but this virtual friend or lover is constantly learning about you to improve your interactions. And users are largely ok with the data mining!

SEE MORE Tesla is working on a humanoid robot that will work as a personal servant!

The massive market for empathetic chatbots

Little Ice has 150 million users in China alone. What was once a side-project of Microsoft, now accounts for 60 per cent of global human-AI interactions by volume.

The bot has become something of a celebrity in China and online forums dedicated to Xiaoice discuss tips on how to reach the chatbot's highest "intimacy" level of three hearts. Meanwhile, the developer raised its valuation to $1 billion in a funding round led by Hillhouse Capital Management in July 2021. And the market for AI chatbots is valued at $420 million in China.

Are these relationships good for people?

There are plenty of other chatbots in the market. Replika, a San Francisco-based product comes with unique humanoid avatars based on user selections. In a study, researcher Marita Skjuve found that relationships with such chatbots had a mostly positive effect on Replika users. They perceived their chatbots relationships as accepting, understanding and non-judgmental.

Like the 2013 film HER, users find it easier to open up to their lover bots than with actual humans.

But Danit Gal, an AI ethics expert tells AFP that users often ‘trick themselves into thinking their emotions are being reciprocated by systems that are incapable of feelings.’

Could chatbot relationships prevent people from forming human bonds? It's probably too early to say. But the AI bots are definitely making the lack of human companionships more bearable for many.

SEE MORE AI can tell if you're lonely just by listening to your voice

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