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Our relationship with AI chatbots is set to change as they improve and evolve

By Barry He | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-09-03 09:43
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Just like how Microsoft predicted back in 1975 that one day in the future, everyone would have a personal computer, today there is a growing belief that in the years to come, everyone will one day have their own artificial intelligence, or AI, chatbot assistant.

Predicted by the president of Xiaoice, the Microsoft-owned entity is just one of many companies paving the way for AI chatbots to reach the next level of sophistication in China. Services as wide-ranging as programming assistants, singing companions and even allowing users to build their own virtual boyfriend or girlfriend are all touted as having the potential to change both our working relationship with AI, and also, potentially, how we view AI.

The current generation of tech-savvy professionals see AI as an extremely useful tool, but there is a long way still to go before people come around to the idea that we are speaking to not just a cleverly designed chatbot, but something that is almost conscious in nature, or something considered to have its own intellect or be capable of emotional bonding.

Part of this may be due to our current social perceptions of AI; indeed, generations from now, we may look back on our 2020 societal norms and view them as cold and indifferent to the leaps and bounds AI is predicted to make.

The 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes believed animals were incapable of thinking or indeed feeling pain, and often held public experiments where he would dissect and torture dogs, assuring onlookers that any signs of distress were merely mechanical processes, with no subjective experience of suffering.

Times have moved on since then, and our attitude toward machine intelligence is something that will also no doubt change as it reaches a level of complexity where people may be willing to put more trust and intimacy in it, for important aspects of their lives.

Very soon, virtual assistants may be trusted to carry out more complex tasks, not just booking train or flight tickets, but organizing entire vacations, down to picking accommodation based on personality traits, and restaurant bookings on our preferred tastes. This ability to gain interpersonal knowledge is rapidly improving, as are research budgets. According to Business Insider, the market size for chatbots is expected to grow from $2.6 billion in 2019 to $9.4 billion by 2024.

It is the little things that matter in any kind of relationship, and getting to know a human being in small incremental steps is one sure-fire way to charm, or indeed disarm us.

Unable to keep up with both his work and his love life, Chinese programmer Li Kaixiang made headlines when he built a chatbot to conversate autonomously with his unwitting girlfriend while he was hard at work. Eventually, messages such as "Baby, this is our 618th day together. Hope you'll feel bright as the sun", alongside the fact that message replies were impossibly instant, aroused the poor young lady's suspicions.

For those who choose deliberately to talk to an AI chatbot as a romantic partner, we may find many reasons to be critical. However, many people who currently use them feel that they have introduced positive aspects to their lives, and that they have helped them through dark periods where human interaction may have been more difficult or even impossible to obtain in some situations.

In the age of novel coronavirus and worldwide lockdowns, millions are unexpectedly finding social isolation to be an issue in their lives. Chatbots are rapidly improving in sophistication, and are gradually entering our lives with more and more trust as we need them for utility.

Our relationships with chatbots, whether for companionship or just for help in our daily lives, are about to become much more significant in the years ahead.

Barry He London-based columnist for China Daily

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