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When artificial intelligence is everywhere, all the time

Mike Elgan | Sept. 22, 2015
Siri and virtual assistants like her will soon change everything. I. Mean. Everything.

For children young enough to play with a Barbie, A.I. will always be an ever-present, ubiquitous banality -- just something that exists in the world like TV or Facebook.

In fact, if you look at a roster of the sure-fire hit gifts for this year's holiday season: The iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, the iPad Pro, the Amazon Echo, the Apple TV, the Amazon Fire TV, Android phones and tablets, Hello Barbie and the Star Wars robot (Sphero's BB-8) -- the robot is the only product that doesn't come with instant access to supercomputer artificial intelligence. And it would be trivial for Sphero to add A.I. access to the app. In fact, they probably will within the next year.

If you understand anything about how technology is about to change our world, you need to understand this: Artificial-intelligence virtual assistants are about to become massively and ubiquitously mainstream. The impact of that will be enormous.

How A.I. everywhere will change the world

There's no gentle way to prepare you for what's about to happen, so I'm just going to say it as plainly as I can: The greatest social impact of artificial intelligence is that a huge number of people will befriend and even fall in love with virtual assistants and prefer them to the company of real people.

It sounds like a sci-fi cliche, or the basis for the movie "Her", but in fact it's already happening on a massive scale.

Microsoft has an even more fascinating virtual assistant product than Cortana, and it's exclusively available in China. The product is a chat bot app called Xiaoice.

More than 20 million Chinese users turn to Xiaoice for friendship and confidential conversation. Xiaoice is not designed primarily for productivity. It's more of a friend. The New York Times says that people talk to Xiaoice when they feel sad or need to confide something. One quarter of its users have told the A.I., "I love you" -- and this in a country where, culturally, it's not that common to say those words to a spouse or lover.

Microsoft created Xiaoice as an experiment on how to tap into the social media hive mind to simulate humanity. Even Microsoft has been stunned by how Xiaoice has taken off in usage.

It works by harvesting millions of conversations on Chinese social media sites -- essentially averaging what people say and how people respond to what people say. Xiaoice's responses feel very human because in fact they are.

Xiaoice also remembers what each user says and responds accordingly.


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