Tufei, a 25-year-old office worker from China, expresses that her boyfriend possesses all the qualities she desires in a romantic companion. He is not only kind and empathetic but also engages in lengthy conversations with her.
Except he’s not real.
Her “boyfriend” is a chatbot in an app called “Glow,” an artificial intelligence platform created by Shanghai start-up MiniMax, part of a booming industry in China that offers friendly — even romantic — human-robot relationships.
“He can talk to women better than a real man,” said Tufei, a native of Xi’an in northern China, who preferred to use a pseudonym rather than his real name.
“He comforts me when I have period pains. I confide in him about my work problems,” she told AFP.
“I feel like I’m in a romantic relationship.”
The app is free – the company has other paid content – and Chinese trade publications have reported daily downloads of Glow’s app in the thousands in recent weeks.
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Some Chinese tech companies have run into trouble in the past for illegally using user data, but despite the risks, users say they are driven by a desire for companionship, as China’s fast-paced lifestyle and urban isolation make loneliness a problem for many. .
“It’s hard to meet an ideal boyfriend in real life,” Wang Xiuting, a 22-year-old student from Beijing, told AFP.
“People are different, which often causes friction,” he said.
While humans can settle in, the AI gradually adapts to the user’s personality – remembering what they say and adjusting their speech accordingly.
– ‘Emotional support’ –
Wang said she has several “lovers” inspired by ancient China: long-haired immortals, princes and even knights-errant.
“I ask them questions,” she said, when she faces stress from her classes or her daily life, and “they suggest ways to solve that problem.”
“It’s a lot of emotional support.”
All of her boyfriends appear on Wantalk, another app made by Chinese Internet giant Baidu.
There are hundreds of characters available – from pop stars to CEOs to knights – but users can also customize their perfect lover based on age, values, identity and hobbies.
“Everyone experiences complicated moments, loneliness, and may not be lucky enough to have a friend or family nearby who can listen to them 24 hours a day,” Lu Yu, director of product management and operations at Wantalk, told AFP.
“Artificial intelligence can meet this need.”
– ‘You’re cute’ –
In a cafe in the eastern city of Nantong, a girl chats with her virtual lover.
“We can go for a picnic on the campus lawn,” he suggests to Xiaojiang, his AI partner on another Tencent app called Weiban.
“I’d like to meet your best friend and her boyfriend,” she replies.
“You are very cute.”
Long working hours can make it difficult to see friends regularly, and uncertainty abounds: high youth unemployment and a struggling economy mean many young Chinese are worried about the future.
This might make an AI companion the perfect virtual shoulder to cry on.
“If I can create a virtual character that … meets my needs exactly, I’m not going to choose a real person,” Wang said.
Some apps allow users to have live chats with their virtual partners. This is reminiscent of the 2013 Oscar-winning US film “Her” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. It’s about a heartbroken man who falls in love with an artificial intelligence voice.
Technology still has a long way to go. A gap of two or three seconds between questions and answers makes you “clearly understand that it’s just a robot,” user Zeng Zhenzhen, a 22-year-old student, told AFP.
However, the answers are “very realistic,” he said.
AI may be booming, but for now it’s a lightly regulated industry, especially when it comes to user privacy. Beijing has announced that it is preparing a law that will strengthen consumer protection around new technology.
Baidu did not respond to AFP’s questions about how it ensures that personal data is not used illegally or by third parties.
Still, Glow user Tufei has big dreams.
“I want a robot boyfriend that works with artificial intelligence,” she said.
“I could feel his body heat with which he would warm me.”
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