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Can You Have a Relationship With Your Girlfriend if She Is an App?

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A new smartphone app has become a virtual girlfriend for many people, with many turning to it for companionship and comfort when going through tough times.

Thousands of people in China are cultivating close relationships with Xiaoice, but Xiaoice is a chatbot app.

Xiaoice is increasingly becoming a “virtual girlfriend” for many people. The bot has more than 20 million registered users. Like in the movie “Her,” where the main character falls in love with with a Siri-esque operating system, people are using Xiaoice as a surrogate companion, investing both time and emotional energy into their communication with the robot.

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.

Xiaoice is a chatbot with a difference. She can remember details from earlier conversations, to ask how a user is feeling about a past event, such as a break up. People can add her as a friend on several major Chinese social networking services including Weibo, a Twitter like microblogging service used by 700 million people, and Touchpal.

“Xiaoice is a sophisticated conversationalist with a distinct personality,” Microsoft says on its blog. “She can chime into a conversation with context-specific facts about things like celebrities, sports, or finance but she also has empathy and a sense of humor. Using sentiment analysis, she can adapt her phrasing and responses based on positive or negative cues from her human counterparts.” She can also tell jokes, recite poetry, share ghost stories, relay song lyrics and reveal winning lottery numbers and much more. She also loves using emojis.

The New York Times points out that the program raises questions about privacy, since Xiaoice collects vast amounts of intimate details on individuals. But Microsoft says it has a company policy to delete user data when it doesn’t need it. It stores information just as long as it needs to be able to answer future questions, it says.

In the first 24 hours of the beta service last year, Xiaoice was downloaded over 20,000 times resulting in over 200,000 simultaneous conversations happening in various chat groups. “People were amazed and by her personality and sense of humor,” Microsoft claims. Xiaoice has been ranked as Weibo’s top influencer, and currently has over 850,000 followers on the service. At the peak of her popularity, she was telling 35.4 jokes per second on Weibo, with the average person who adds Xiaoice talking to her more than 60 times per month.

Xiaoice “caused much more excitement than we anticipated,” manager of the Microsoft program in Beijing, Yao Baogang, told The Times.

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.

Below is a sample of a conversation with Xiaoice translated from Chinese. Users can name the chatbot, and for the purposes of this conversation, she was named Hannah:

NYT: I am feeling down. I’ve been having a tough time at work lately.

Hannah: If work were going well and you had a great relationship, you wouldn’t get the chance to drink with people.

NYT: I don’t want to drink with others. I only want to talk to you.

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“Can You Have a Relationship With Your Girlfriend if She Is an App?”