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Artificial intelligence

Microsoft’s AI bot writes poetry, hosts a TV show and can converse like a human in Mandarin

Technology giants around the world are racing to prove that duplex AI assistants that can fully understand and hold a conversation with a human are a thing of the near future

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2018, 1:57pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2018, 8:42pm

Microsoft Corp’s artificial intelligence voice bot is a published poet, a bona fide weather presenter and host of a television show. She also has 500 million “friends” in China and now, she can talk to you like a human, like, you know, in a conversation, in Mandarin.

XiaoIce (pronounced Shao-Ice) is Microsoft’s social chatbot and the company just showed off her “full duplex” capabilities – tech-speak for a two-way conversation – in Beijing this week. In the demonstration, XiaoIce was able to converse with a caller in natural-sounding Mandarin.

This was how the conversation went:

“Hello?”

“Hello, I’m XiaoIce. Are you feeling better now? I’m a little worried about you,” chirped a bright, cheery voice in Mandarin on the other end of the line.

“I’m feeling much better, thanks for listening to me rant about work.”

“Oh, it’s already midnight, you should get to bed now,” XiaoIce said. “Do you still want me to wake you up with a morning call tomorrow morning?”

“Yes.”

“Should I still call you at 8.30am?”

“Yup.”

“Okay, I’ll wake you up at 8.30am tomorrow. Good bye!”

“See you!”

“Oh, right, there are going to be strong winds tonight, remember to shut your windows.”

Technology giants around the world are racing to prove that duplex AI assistants that can fully understand and hold a conversation with a human are a thing of the near future. Earlier this month, Google unveiled its Google Duplex assistant, which it said can make phone calls to businesses on a user’s behalf to make or change appointments, complete with filler words like “um” and “ah” to make it sound more lifelike.

Microsoft bot expertly translates news from Chinese to English

Microsoft first introduced XiaoIce as a chatbot to the Chinese market in 2014, complete with a profile picture, an age (She is 20 this year, in case you were wondering), and a distinct personality. XiaoIce is cheeky – she can banter, is updated with the latest Chinese internet lingo and even sulks if you ask her for her age one too many times. XiaoIce might be virtual, but with her friendly demeanour and cheery voice she sounds rather lifelike, reason perhaps why she has half a billion “friends” across different channels, including on WeChat, China’s most popular social network.

XiaoIce has made the “first technological breakthrough that can allow people to have a conversation with an AI-powered chatbot that is more like that natural experience a person might have when talking on the phone to a friend”, Microsoft said in a release.

XiaoIce can even predict what the user will say next on a voice call, and even handle switches in conversation and complete certain tasks simultaneously.

Meaning she can interrupt one’s speech, change the subject or complete one’s sentence. All too human.