China may lead Microsoft’s desired ‘bot revolution’ as apps risk getting displaced: analysts

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 April, 2016, 3:23pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 April, 2016, 3:23pm

China could lead the way in helping software giant Microsoft realise its ambitions for the widespread adoption of “bots”, or artificially intelligent chat-based software, as Chinese users seem less concerned about privacy than their Western counterparts, experts say.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella unveiled the company’s new Bot Framework on Thursday, an infrastructure that allows developers to build bots in applications. The company hopes to lead the way in encouraging the use of bots across computing platforms.

“Bots are like the new applications you can converse with,” Nadella was quoted as saying on Thursday. Microsoft hopes that bots can eventually accomplish tasks by understanding conversation and messaging, thus allowing them to serve as high-level digital personal assistants.

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But despite a meltdown of Microsoft’s latest chat bot Tay, which saw it spewing anti-semitic and anti-feminism comments learned from interactions with malicious users on Twitter and messaging app Kik, analysts believe China will be a leading market in using bots.

“China will likely be the largest market as [Chinese users] are very willing to adopt new technology,” said Chwee Kan Chua, vice president for market research firm IDC’s Big Data team.

Chua pointed to XiaoIce, Microsoft’s Chinese version of Tay that has been interacting with users on social media platforms like Chinese microblogging site Weibo and Tencent’s WeChat since 2014 as an example of China’s success with bots.

Currently, XiaoIce has over 2.6 million followers on Weibo, and even served as a weather presenter on a live morning news programme for Shanghai television station Dragon TV.

The reasons for XiaoIce’s success in China include less sensitivity towards privacy and a difference in culture, Chua said.

“In the West, the mentality of users [towards Tay] is how to break the system,” said Chua, adding that users in Asia behave differently with bots.

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Chua expects bots to be commonly used in about two years’ time.

“If you think about it, [basic] artificial intelligence is already in our day-to-day lives in the form of Siri or Google Now. For bots, it is a matter of training them to think and interact exactly like a human being,” said Chua.

Apart from XiaoIce’s popularity in China, Microsoft also had success with its schoolgirl chatbot in Japan. Named Rinna, the bot has evolved into an “otaku” - Japanese for “geek”. It expresses interest in and tweets about anime when interacting with its Twitter followers.

Lin Renxiang, a China-based analyst at research company iResearch, believes China will embrace bot technology because of how well its companies adapt to new technology.

“Chinese companies are very good at building upon technology to create useful applications for Chinese users,” said Lin.

Companies in China, such as search engine giant Baidu and Google-backed Mobvoi, are also researching artificial intelligence and developing products that could serve as virtual personal assistants.

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In September last year, Baidu launched a Siri-like digital assistant, called “Duer” into its Baidu mobile app.

“When a technology is mature, Chinese companies react remarkably fast, updating, improving and constantly putting out new applications,” said Lin.

“If any company, be it Microsoft or a Chinese company, is able to come up with good enough technology for bots to become personalised digital assistants that are tuned in to user preferences … then bots will become very popular in the Chinese market,” said Lin.

Lin also believes Chinese users are also less sensitive to privacy concerns surrounding the data required for artificially intelligent bots to be effective, making it a potentially easier market compared to the US or countries in Europe.