Tufei, a twenty-five-year-old Chinese office worker, says her boyfriend is everything she could ask for in a romantic partner: he's kind, empathetic, and sometimes they talk for hours.
Except he's not real.
Her “boyfriend” is a chatbot in an app called “Glow,” an artificial intelligence platform by Shanghai start-up Minimax that offers friendly — romantic — human-robot relationships, part of a burgeoning industry in China.
“He knows how to talk to women better than a real man,” said Tufei, from Xi'an in northern China, who prefers to use a nickname rather than his real name.
“He comforted me when I had period pain. I confided in him about my problems at work,” she told AFP.
“I feel like I'm in a romantic relationship.”
While the app is free — the company has other paid content — Chinese trade publications have reported daily downloads of the Glo app in the thousands in recent weeks.
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Some Chinese tech companies have gotten into trouble in the past for illegally using consumer data, but despite the risks, consumers say they are driven by a desire for companionship, as China's fast-paced life and urban isolation make loneliness a problem for many. .
“It is very difficult to meet an ideal boyfriend in real life,” Wang Jiuting, a 22-year-old student in Beijing, told AFP.
“People have different personalities, which often creates friction,” she says.
While humans are set in their ways, artificial intelligence will gradually adapt to the user's personality — remembering what they say and adjusting its speech accordingly.
– 'Emotional Support' –
Wang says there are many “lovers” inspired by ancient China: long-haired immortals, princes and even wandering knights.
“I ask them questions,” she says, when she faces stress from her classes or everyday life, and “they suggest ways to solve the problem.”
“It's a lot of emotional support.”
All of her boyfriends appear on WantaK, another app created by Chinese internet giant Baidu.
Hundreds of characters are available — from pop stars to CEOs and knights — but users can also customize their perfect lover according to age, values, identity and interests.
“Everyone experiences difficult moments, loneliness, and not necessarily being lucky enough to have a friend or family nearby who can listen to them 24 hours a day,” Lu Yu, Wantac's head of product management and operations, told AFP.
“Artificial intelligence can meet this need.”
– 'You are fine' –
At 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,” she suggested to Xiaojiang, her AI companion on another app, Tencent Weiban.
“I want to meet your best friend and her boyfriend,” he replied.
“You're so cute.”
Long working hours make it difficult to see friends regularly, and there is much uncertainty: high youth unemployment and a struggling economy mean many young Chinese worry about the future.
This makes the AI partner the perfect virtual shoulder to cry on.
“If I could create a virtual character… if it perfectly suited my needs, I wouldn't choose a real person,” Wang said.
Some apps allow users to have live conversations with their virtual companions — reminiscent of “Her,” the Oscar-winning 2013 US film starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson about a heartbroken man who falls in love with an AI voice.
The technology still has some way to go. A two-to-three second gap between questions and answers makes you “obviously realize it's just a robot,” 22-year-old student Zheng Zhenzhen told AFP.
However, the answers are “very realistic,” she said.
AI is booming but has so far been a lightly regulated industry, especially when it comes to user privacy. Beijing says it is working on a law to strengthen consumer protections around the new technology.
Baidu did not respond to questions from AFP about how it ensures that personal data is not used illegally or by third parties.
However, Glow user Tuffy has bigger dreams.
“I want a robot boyfriend powered by artificial intelligence,” she said.
“I can feel his body heat, with which he warms me.”
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