Google demonstrated a jaw-dropping new capability in Google Assistant earlier this month, allowing the Assistant to make calls on your behalf. While Google Duplex generated controversy and discussion around artificial intelligence, Microsoft has been testing similar technology with millions of people in China. At an AI event in London today, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella showed off the company’s Xiaoice (pronounced “SHAO-ICE”) social chat bot.
Microsoft has been testing Xiaoice in China, and Nadella revealed the bot has 500 million “friends” and more than 16 channels for Chinese users to interact with it through WeChat and other popular messaging services. Microsoft has turned Xiaoice, which is Chinese for “little Bing,” into a friendly bot that has convinced some of its users that the bot is a friend or a human being. “Xiaoice has her own TV show, it writes poetry, and it does many interesting things,” reveals Nadella. “It’s a bit of a celebrity.”
While most of Xiaoice’s interactions have been in text conversations, Microsoft has started allowing the chat bot to call people on their phones. It’s not exactly the same as Google Duplex, which uses the Assistant to make calls on your behalf, but instead it holds a phone conversation with you. “One of the things we started doing earlier this year is having full duplex conversations,” explains Nadella. “So now Xiaoice can be conversing with you in WeChat and stop and call you. Then you can just talk to it using voice.” (The term “full duplex” here refers to a conversation where both participants can speak at the same time; it’s not a reference to Google’s product, which was named after the same jargon.)
Nadella demonstrated this functionality in action today, noting that Xiaoice has made a million calls so far. The voice “sounds really good,” according to Verge science reporter Angela Chen, who is fluent in Mandarin. “The pitch is artificially bright, sort of like a US version of a newscaster voice.” Microsoft’s impressive demo showed how its bot can even predict what the person will say next, and respond quickly. In the video demo, Xiaoice interrupts the user mid-sentence to alert them that there are strong winds and they should close the window before bed.
It’s surprising that Microsoft hasn’t demonstrated the same capabilities in its own Cortana digital assistant. Xiaoice is limited to China, and many in the West aren’t even aware it exists despite the chat bot’s fame. Microsoft’s first English-language bot experiment, Tay, ended in a disaster after Twitter users taught it to be racist in less than a day. Microsoft might, understandably, be more cautious about creating another English-speaking bot as a result.
Still, Microsoft clearly has the technology to have bots handling basic phone conversations in China, so it’s arguably only a matter of time before this arrives for users in the US and other English-speaking countries. With Google aiming to start testing Google Duplex in the summer, maybe we’ll all soon be speaking to bots that are reminding us to close our windows and clean our teeth before bed.