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Microsoft Research Asia Managing Director Dr. Hsiao-Wuen Hon.
Microsoft Research Asia Managing Director Dr. Hsiao-Wuen Hon. (GeekWire Photo)

Dr. Hsiao-Wuen Hon is speaking quickly inside a Beijing boardroom, excited about the conversation topic. He’s rattling off statistics and talking about Xiaoice, a new personal assistant built by Microsoft that is already being used by 40 million smartphone owners across China and Japan.

Hon explains how Xiaoice is similar to digital assistants like those we’re familiar with in the U.S.: Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Facebook’s M, Google Now, and Microsoft’s own Cortana.

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Inside Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing.

But this particular one, which roughly translates to “Little Bing,” is more personal, emotional, friendly, talkative, and at times, more helpful. Rolled out in China late last year and in Japan (it’s called Rinna there) this past August, early consumers seem to enjoy using Xiaoice — even Hon himself is jazzed up about its performance and potential.

“Xiaoice, by and large in terms of development of artificial intelligence, is already a huge milestone,” he told GeekWire last week.

On our recent GeekWire China trip, we had a chance to sit down with Dr. Hon, a 20-year Microsoft veteran and corporate vice president, chairman of Microsoft’s Asia-Pacific R&D Group, and managing director of Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing, where the idea for Xiaoice originated.

Xiaoice is perhaps best described as a virtual friend — one that can have conversations relevant to you, make you smile, suggest new products to purchase, identify photos, and so much more. It’s not only intelligent, but also rather thoughtful — for a robot, at least — thanks to advanced sentiment analysis technology.

So far, users are falling in love with Xiaoice — quite literally. At the 2015 GeekWire Summit, New York Times reporter John Markoff noted that 25 percent of users had told Xiaoice “I love you.”

Xiaoice, accessed via Weibo (China’s version of Twitter), WeChat (China’s version of Facebook Messenger), Windows Phone, and other platforms, can also already participate in a substantial amount of back-and-forth chit-chats between the robot and a human. The goal for Xiaoice, Dr. Hon explained, is to continue the conversation; based on that metric, Microsoft seems to be succeeding so far.

When the company first launched Xiaoice to Chinese users last year, the typical conversation averaged about five interactions per session. Just one year later, that number is up to 23 interactions.

“We feel very proud,” Hon said.

Earlier this summer, The New York Times showed how Xiaoice communicates with a user. You can also see another example below (click to enlarge):

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An example of a chat with Xiaoice.

The technology behind Xiaoice is impressive. Microsoft’s team in Beijing uses data from public Chinese chat forums and social media while utilizing machine learning algorithms to enable robot-to-human chats. It remembers past conversations and can even identify and talk about photos that a user sends.

Xiaoice’s usefulness extends beyond just these random chit-cats. Some companies, like Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com, are finding that Xiaoice can also act as a marketing tool. JD.com gave Microsoft access to its product catalog, which enables Xiaoice to act as a shopping buddy — answering questions that a user might have and offering recommendations about various items. (see the screenshot above for an example).

At Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing.
At Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing.

“We’ve shown that monetization on this channel is much, much higher than regular JD.com channels,” Hon said. “It will be very interesting to have something that people actually trust.”

Xiaoice’s early traction and success indicates that the tech giant may have something special on its hands from an artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data perspective. The Redmond-based company already has Cortana, its digital assistant used by consumers in the U.S. and elsewhere.

But Xiaoice utilizes artificial intelligence from a different angle.

“We’re trying to have a emotional connection with user,” Hon said.

How much personality tech companies program into their robot assistants is already a debated topic in the U.S., with Reuters publishing a story on Tuesday examining this subject. Xiaoice, meanwhile, certainly falls on the side of exhibiting more human-like emotions and attitude — which can open up a whole realm of new possibilities for a user.

“While it gives you useful information, a lot of times it just wants to be your friend,” Hon said.

Oren Etzioni.
Oren Etzioni.

Dr. Oren Etzioni, a veteran Seattle entrepreneur who is now CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, told GeekWire that Xiaoice is “definitely” an indication of things to come, offering up similar examples like interactive Barbie toys, software-based “pets” for the elderly, and digital assistants like Siri, Alexa, and M.

But Etzioni also cautioned that there are potential downsides to the new technology, some of which are exemplified in the popular movie “Her.”

“We are seeing more and more intelligent assistants and software companions,” he said. “The good news is that they fulfill a real need, but the bad news is that these technologies don’t further human-to-human interaction. The future will be bleak if we find ourselves ‘over-connected’ to software and yet alone — just as in the movie ‘Her.'”

Hon said that in the future, he sees humans using a combination of something more task-driven like Cortana with something more emotional like Xiaoice.

“The two will move to a middle ground — something that provides an emotional connection but also gives you efficiency and productivity,” he said.

Hon added that there’s “huge opportunity” when you combine efficient and effective artificial intelligence with a human’s wants and needs.

As far as why Microsoft launched Xiaoice in China before anywhere else, Hon said it was mostly because the idea originated among R&D teams in Beijing. However, he noted that Chinese consumers today are “more receptive to new technology,” which makes it easier to test something like Xiaoice.

Microsoft said earlier this year that it is developing an English-language version of Xiaoice. Hon noted that “if we continue the success, we will certainly consider” rolling out a version in the U.S.

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