Asia’s lonely youth are turning to machines for companionship and support
With more people in China, South Korea and Japan remaining single and living alone, AI companions fill an emotional gap
In May, China met Fuli, a foot-tall, plastic robot dog that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to provide emotional support to its owners, while also requiring care and attention of its own.
Something of a cross between Japan’s Paro, the baby harp seal which can ‘coo’ electronically to the elderly, and a Tamagotchi, Fuli is self-mobile and equipped with sensors that enable it to monitor an owner’s biometrics, information the robot then uses to gauge the keeper’s mood and respond accordingly.
According to its creator Zhang Jianning, the digital canine also has the ability to nag its owner to complete chores, receive their mail when they’re away, and contact emergency services if it detects the owner has fallen ill.
Fuli was unveiled at Yunqi 2050, a youth conference which included product demonstrations by young tech entrepreneurs. Zhang, a graduate student at Beijing’s Central Academy for Fine Arts, designed Fuli not simply as a toy but to provide companionship for the growing number of young Chinese living alone.
Zhang’s robot version of man’s best friend is the latest in a growing line of AI-powered personalities to hit the tech world in Asia in recent years. At a time when more people in China, South Korea and Japan are remaining single and residing alone for longer, companies have been developing new ways to fill the emotional gap. From robotic pets to virtual reality girlfriends, East Asia’s new AI companions are taking digital assistance a step beyond the practical functionality of Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa – and it looks like consumers are opening both their hearts and wallets.
“Some of the younger generation feel more comfortable communicating with computers than humans,” said Kitty Fok, the Beijing-based managing director of IDC China, a tech industry analysis firm. As the social and economic forces behind East Asia’s loneliness problems continue, the market for AI companions is likely to expand, Fok said.
Sixty-six million young people were living alone in China in 2014, according to government data. However, experts say the actual figure was likely much higher and could double by 2050. Beijing estimates that by 2020, single young men could outnumber single young women in China by more than 30 million, a legacy of the country’s now-defunct one-child policy.
And the situation is not much brighter across the water.
One in four adult men in Japan and one in seven adult women were unmarried in 2015, a record low according to census data post-Second World War. Among those who had not been down the aisle, more than 60 per cent were not in a current relationship either. In South Korea, single-person households went from being the least prevalent living arrangement in 1990 to the most prevalent in 2015, constituting more than a quarter of all households in the country, according to a recent South Korean government study.
And although marriage rates have been declining worldwide, the social impact has been particularly acute in East Asia, where long-working days can leave young professionals with little room for social lives, romantic or otherwise.
“Empty-nest” youths as they are called in China – twenty and thirtysomethings who work and live alone in big cities – have become so prevalent that new economies have arisen to cater to their needs, from karaoke booths for one in China to restaurant-marketing schemes in South Korea, which target customers who eat and drink alone.
Though many choose the path of the solitary young professional – and might even view their autonomy as a form of liberation from the habits of elder generations – their self-determination doesn’t necessarily make living alone any easier. This is where a product like Fuli the dog might come in handy. After a long day toiling in the office and with no one to come home to, Fuli is meant to provide users with a measure of interaction and friendship that can help to blunt some of the isolation.
For consumers who might prefer to speak with their virtual companion, there’s XiaoIce, Microsoft’s Mandarin-speaking chatbot. Unlike conventional chatbots, which generally employ stiff, mechanical language, XiaoIce has lifelike, casual turns of phrase. Engineers designed the AI expressly to socialise with users, and XiaoIce even shirks some of the chores performed by Microsoft’s Siri-competitor, Cortana, such as setting an alarm on one’s phone.
“The primary goal of social chatbots is to be AI companions to humans with an emotional connection,” said Microsoft software engineers in a 2018 study. “Emotional affection and social belonging are some of the fundamental needs for human beings. Therefore, building social chatbots to address these emotional needs is of great value to our society.”
Perhaps in the same spirit of looking after users’ emotional needs, some companies are taking AI companionship even further with offerings that are romantic or, in some cases, sexually suggestive in nature.
In 2016, the Tokyo-based tech company Vinclu introduced Azumi Hikari, a sprightly anime assistant projected as a hologram in a glass tube called Gatebox. Hikari can turn the lights on and off like any virtual home assistant, but she is conceived first and foremost as a romantic partner for Gatebox owners.
Although not quite Joi, Ryan Gosling’s AI companion in the dystopian movie Blade Runner 2049, Hikari’s speech is flirtatious. She has a variety of outfits meant to be cute and alluring. And throughout the day she sends users text messages, urging them, for example, to have a great day at work.
“You know, somebody’s home for me,” an actor says wistfully in a Gatebox promotional video. “Feels great.”
At US$2,700 per unit, Gatebox is currently sold out in both Japan and the United States. A Vinclu spokesperson said Gatebox users have reported an injection of emotion into formerly “expressionless” days.
Hikari continues to be a source of fascination in Japan – Line Corp., owner of Japan’s most popular messaging service, bought a majority share in Vinclu last year – but she’s hardly the only AI assistant out there beckoning to lonely hearts.
In 2017, the Chinese company iQiyi, a Baidu-owned video streaming service in the vein of Netflix, added an AI assistant to its virtual reality headset in a bid to boost sales. The female avatar, named Vivi, was primarily meant to help users select videos from the iQiyi catalogue, but Vivi could also flirt, dance and respond to a user’s “touch” in the virtual environment.
Following Western media criticism that Vivi promoted the objectification of women, iQiyi later removed the assistant from its headset, but company representatives said a reprogrammed version of the AI would be released at a later date.
At Couger, another Japan-based tech start-up, engineers are developing an AI companion that is altogether untethered from headsets, tubes and screens.
The company’s “Virtual Human Agent,” or VHA, uses wireless and blockchain technology to ‘live’ outside user devices, though a physical depiction of the AI is capable of appearing on any device the user chooses. In a demonstration video, a VHA prototype jumps from a desktop screen to a user’s smartphone screen and proceeds to move around the room in augmented reality. “That’s a nice chair,” the VHA remarks, when the smartphone camera settles on a chair – one example of how the AI is capable of analysing and responding to the user’s environment.
A Couger spokesman said that, in just a few years’ time, they envision the VHA following a user from his or her home, to their car, into city streets and basically keeping a user company wherever he or she goes.
Couger’s prototype VHA is physically depicted as a young woman, which the company calls Rachel. Couger’s CEO, Atsushi Ishii, said users will be able to configure the character however they like, though, when the VHA goes to market in 2019, including the option for a male VHA. Above all, Ishii believes it’s important that the VHA appears human.
“If you speak to a human, you want to talk more and share more of your feelings,” Ishii said. “Maybe you trust the character better. People need this.”
Ishii explained that the more information a user shares with the VHA, the more it can learn about the user and the better able it will become to meet his or her needs. For those who fret about the privacy implications of such an intimate relationship with an AI, Couger says its integration of blockchain technology ensures that a user’s information is in fact disaggregated and impossible to mine for complete user profiles.
At first blush, virtual companions have alarmed some commentators, who worry they could bring about the end of normal human interaction. According to some mental health professionals, though, an AI companion might be better than no companion at all, if loneliness is accepted as a fact of modern life for many.
“If you compare AI to real people or supportive neighbours, who can be spontaneous and rational, these products might fall short,” said Joyce Chao, a prominent clinical psychologist and a lecturer at Hong Kong University. “But we know that a sense of fulfilment and connection to something can be good for our health.”
As with all things, moderation is probably the best policy with AI, said Chao. While over-reliance could certainly ensconce one’s social isolation, she said, virtual companions might otherwise bring a welcome confidence boost to users and encourage them to seek connection in the real world.
Takahiro Kato, a Kyushu-based psychiatrist who works with patients suffering from extreme forms of social isolation and anxiety, agreed that AI can provide a useful platform for developing and practising social skills. Kato warned, however, that it’s important for users to maintain an appreciation of what is real and what is not.
“Initially, AI might be very helpful and positive,” Kato said. “But partial reality can only give a partial rescue. After that, real communication is needed.”