On Saturday, Microsoft apologised after Tay, their AI bot, learnt to be a racist and sexist in just 16 hours of operation. Earlier in 2014 in China, Microsoft had a hand in producing XiaoIce, Tay’s ‘a lot nicer’ older sister.
The disastrous and short life of A.I. bot Tay is a possible reflection of the dark side of Internet culture. Tay was designed – as with other artificial intelligence – to become increasingly intelligent as it interacted with users on Twitter. Instead, Tay began parroting anti-Semitic and sexist material and other invective as the result of users manipulating the chatbox to create a hateful effect.
Ironically, the experiment was designed to ‘learn’ through the interaction with a young generation of millennials. So from a techno-cultural perspective, it is interesting to understand why Microsoft has enjoyed more like-ability with their Chinese bot.
Like her younger sister, XiaoIce also had some teething issues, her original version also had a foul mouth. But after some tweaks, the Chinese bot has developed a caring relationship with her 40 million local users.
XiaoIce does lovely things such as help users count sheep to go to sleep. Also she can tell jokes, and give you the latest weather forecast. She is so popular, that you can access an ‘adoption’ website to include her on the platforms on your phone – including WeChat, micro-blog Weibo and e-commerce sites such as JD.com.
Users can train XiaoIce to become an intelligent form of company, providing helpful information and augmenting search options with relevant imagery. Also, on a good day (sic.), she can tell your fortune according to your zodiac sign.
So what are the reasons for XiaoIce’s popularity? It feels that the idea of a A.I. bot is part of a more seamless integration that Chinese netizens have with technology, the fact that XiaoIce simply acts as another friend on your phone seems more ‘natural’ than it would elsewhere. The fact that XiaoIce has a voice makes her more human and relatable. Her visually avatar (a big head sticker) relates to a fondness Chinese millenials have with gaming and earlier photographic technologies.
Tay’s early retirement and XiaoIce’s popularity are suggestive of the differences that exist in Chinese and Western netispheres.