Microsoft is carrying out a massive social experiment in China -- and almost no one knows about it

Microsoft is conducting what “could be the largest Turing test in history” in China, according to Yongdong Wang, a senior researcher and scientist at the company.

Wang outlined what the company is doing with Xiaoice — pronounced Shao-ice and translated as “little Bing” — in China in a report for Nautilus.

The “Turing Test,” created by British scientist Alan Turing, is a test that looks to see if a human can detect whether the person answering a question is a human or a computer. The test has become a fixture in pop culture, with a starring role in the film “Ex Machina.”

According to Wang, Xiaoice is used by millions of people every day, and can respond with human-like answers, questions, and “thoughts.” If a user sends a picture of a broken ankle, Xiaoice will reply with a question asking about how much pain the injury caused, for example.

“Xiaoice can exchange views on any topic,” writes Wang. “If it’s something she doesn’t know much about, she will try to cover it up. If that doesn’t work, she might become embarrassed or even angry, just like a human would.”

A report from GeekWire claimed that millions of Chinese users were telling Xiaoice that they loved it, without any apparent irony. Around 25% of Xiaoice’s users — 10 million people — had said “I love you” while using the service.

However, outside of Asia very few people have heard of Xiaoice. According to Google Trends, which tracks what people are searching for, interest spiked in August last year but has fallen.

But why has Microsoft built Samantha from “Her”?

HerWarner Bros.A scene from the film ‘Her’ in which the character falls in love with his computer.

Xiaoice is, essentially, a large-scale test of artificial intelligence for Microsoft.

“Xiaoice is teaching us what makes a relationship feel human, and hinting at a new goal for artificial intelligence: not just analysing databases and driving cars, but making people happier,” writes Wang.

Outside of China, the company has been making strides with AI, buying up various startups and building its own apps for iPhone and Android.

Microsoft Research, the 1,000-strong arm of the company that does scientific research, predicted that artificial intelligence would be a big trend in 2016 in a list of predictions published late last year.

Xiaoice can do a myriad of things that Siri or Google Now can’t, including offering a 33-day breakup course, according to Wang.

“Xiaoice is constantly memorising and analysing your emotional state,” he writes. “If you have a recently failed romantic relationship, she will proactively ask whether you’ve gotten over it.”

The software behind Xiaoice is Bing, the search engine that Microsoft runs. “Xiaoice is a big data project, built on top of the Microsoft Bing search engine,” writes Wang.

The data that Microsoft can glean from Xiaoice in China can then be used elsewhere. Cortana, the virtual assistant that is built-into Windows 10, uses Bing data and could benefit from Xiaoice.

In an interview with GeekWire last year, Dr. Hsiao-Wuen Hon, who leads the Xiaoice project, said the technology could be exported outside of China, but the company had no current plans to.

Microsoft is betting big on AI.

CortanaMicrosoftThe face of Cortana.

Microsoft is betting
big on artificial intelligence, and has been for the past years. Microsoft Garage, an in-house app development project, has made a number of “silly” apps that, at the core, use AI technology.

An alarm clock for Android can recognise facial expressions, for example, and SwiftKey, the keyboard app Microsoft acquired last week, uses AI to predict words.

Cortana and the Office suite, two core components of Microsoft’s businesses, both use artificial intelligence and are powered by Bing, just like Xiaoice.

Cortana, the virtual assistant, uses Bing to power results that are spoken in natural language while Office Delve, a new addition in Office 365, analyses a user’s inbox and priorities some items.

“Microsoft is a pretty serious business with clearly a lot going on in the AI and machine learning space,” said Azeem Azhar, an AI expert, in an email to Business Insider last month. He cited Cortana and Xiaoice as examples.

“Through the tens of billions of conversations she’s had over the past 18 months, Xiaoice has added considerably to her store of known conversational scenarios, and improved her ability to rank answer candidates,” writes Wang. “We can now claim that Xiaoice has entered a self-learning and self-growing loop [and] she is only going to get better.”

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