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    Not just a chatbot

    ANN/CHINA DAILY – Liu Shuqi broke up with her boyfriend two months ago and has now found a new companion.

    The handsome “man” is dressed in a white outfit with a stylish haircut. He understands her emotions and feelings perfectly and gives her solace, encouragement and support.

    “He is very humorous and offers some comfort when I am in a bad mood,” the 26-year-old bank employee said.

    The only problem is he is a virtual being and not a real boyfriend.

    Liu is not alone in her choice of companion.

    In a digital era where people are heavily reliant on their smart devices, many of those who live alone increasingly turn to the virtual realm to seek companions.

    The artificial intelligence (AI) -powered digital humans, who are similar to real humans in appearance and behaviour, are capable of providing 24-hour online companionship, human-like conversation and emotional support.

    The artificial intelligence-powered digital humans are capable of providing companionship, human-like conversation and emotional support. PHOTO: ANN/CHINA DAILY

    They will likely become an essential part of people’s daily lives, industry experts said.

    Lin Kaikai and Ye Youyou, two companion-oriented virtual beings, were recently launched by Chinese tech giant Baidu Inc.

    Powered by Baidu’s Plato, an AI model for dialogue generation that is trained on over 10 billion parameters collected from social media conversations in both English and Chinese, the two digital humans have a smooth, more human-like interaction.

    For instance, they can participate in conversations through various forms such as texts, voice and emojis.

    They offer customised wake-up call services and learn about the preferences of their users, mainly through increased frequency of chats and interactions, Baidu said.

    Given the stressful work in cities and the rapid pace of urban life, the companion-centric digital avatars could relieve the anxiety of people and satisfy their demands for emotional communication.

    This has bolstered the boom in the digital human industry, said head of the digital human and robotics business at Baidu Li Shiyan.

    “The application of advanced AI technologies will keep bringing down the cost of creating digital humans and significantly improve their interactions with real humans,” Li said.

    The total size of China’s virtual human market is forecast to reach CNY270 billion (USD39.6 billion) by 2030, according to an industry report released by QbitAI, an industry services platform focussing on AI and cutting-edge technology.

    Other tech companies have also jumped on the companion-oriented virtual being bandwagon.

    Xiaoice is an AI-powered chatbot that seems to redefine the conceptions of romance and relationships among young Chinese.

    It has helped to comfort lonely hearts through more than 17 million virtual “girlfriends” and “boyfriends” in China, according to Xiaoice, the company which has the same name. The company created an app that allows users to create their own AI friends and interact with virtual characters in immersive experiences, said Xiaoice Chief Executive Officer Li Di.

    “The rise of digital humans that serve as emotional companions is a result of technological innovation, such as the improvement in appearance, functions and interactive experience of digital humans, fuelled by the enhanced deep-learning capacities based on massive user data,” said Director of the Digital Economy Integration Innovation Development Center at the Central University of Finance and Economics Chen Duan.

    A new set of problems though have also emerged.

    They include ethics, morals, data security and personal privacy protection in the industry, Chen said, while calling for efforts to formulate relevant laws and regulations on the ownership of digital characters and standardising their behaviours.

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