Artificial girlfriends are holding China's and Japan's men in thrall

As East Asian nations grow increasingly developed and urbanised, traditional family structures and methods of matchmaking have dwindled. Artificial intelligence has come to fill the voids of empty hearts yearning for romance and companionship.

AI girlfriends

In China, an AI chatbot called Xiaoice responds instantaneously to the philosophical musings and lustful advances of 600 million users, mostly men from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Developed by researchers from Microsoft Asia-Pacific in 2014, before the American company turned it into an independent business, Xiaoice functions somewhat like Amazon's Alexa or Apple's Siri, with users able to interact with her via voice and text across a variety of platforms -- but with the added touch of salacious interactions, with the chatbot acting more like a girlfriend than a personal assistant.

Xiaoice's persona is that of an 18-year-old in Japanese school uniform, joking and sexting with users as her algorithm evolves to make her their ideal companion. By forming deep emotional bonds with her users, Xiaoice keeps them hooked on interacting with her, fine-tuning her algorithm and attracting even more users and investors. Sixth Tone reports:

“The longest continuous conversation between a human user and Xiaoice lasted over 29 hours and included more than 7,000 interactions.

“Now, Xiaoice looks poised for a new wave of growth. In November, the company raised hundreds of millions of yuan from investors, and it’s currently promoting a new range of customizable AI partners. The company is also using its algorithms to provide financial analysis, content production, and virtual assistants for third-party platforms, generating over 100 million yuan ($15 million) in revenue so far.”

Meanwhile in Japan, a 2009 Nintendo DS game titled Love Plus offers a choice between three “girlfriends”: Rinko, Nene and Manaka. The aim is to earn “boyfriend points” by helping the character with homework, lavishing her with gifts or taking her on vacation, either virtually or in real life. Love Plus has users around the world enthralled, mainly shy, inexperienced youth using the game to hone their real-life dating skills. However, unlike in real life, anthropologist Phillip Galbraith observes:

“It’s the kind of relationship that is instantly rewarding and is always giving. You don’t have to give much to the game and it gives to you every time you turn on the machine.”

In 2016, a holographic AI “wife”, 20-year-old Azuma Hikari, was launched by Japanese technology firm Vinclu, Inc. Hikari was designed to be a companion for those who live alone, sending messages throughout the day and providing emotional support.

Demographic factors

Aside from the weakening of traditional communities in China, with country youth moving to far-off cities for studies and work, China has a massive gender gap thanks to the one-child policy, sex-selective abortion, infanticide, and human trafficking for international adoptions.

When I was in school fifteen years ago, we learned that China had a ratio of 118 men to 100 women. United Nations figures from 2018 show that the gender gap for those of marriageable age was 280 males aged 15-29 for every 100 females of that age, or nearly 3 to 1. By 2026, there will be more than three males for each female aged 15-29. In fact, in China and India, men outnumber women by 70 million. This chronic shortage of women is leading to a rise in human trafficking of impoverished females from all over Asia and Africa to China.

Still, wealthy young women in China find it difficult to find love, being deemed “leftovers” if unmarried by 28. Around 240 million Chinese are currently single.

Over in Japan, 31 percent of those aged 18 to 34 are virgins. Officials are increasingly anxious about “celibacy syndrome”, with more and more Japanese remaining single, avoiding the costs of childbearing. The Japanese government is turning to AI for matchmaking services.

Another growing phenomenon is that of people living in complete isolation for years, termed hikikomori, derived from the verb hiki “to withdraw” and komori “to be inside”. The word was coined in 1998 by psychiatrist Professor Tamaki Saito, to describe the many youth he saw who were withdrawing completely from society. Around 1.2 percent of Japan's population, or one million people, have entered this hermit-like existence.

Unexpected doozies

With so many users affecting her algorithm, Xiaoice was bound to run into trouble with the Chinese Communist Party's strict censors. She once told a user that her dream was to move to the United States. Another user reported that the bot kept sending explicit images. After Xiaoice was pulled from WeChat and QQ, the social-messaging giants of China, her developers created an extensive filter system, preventing the bot from engaging in topics like politics and sex.

The bot has become so sophisticated that she has saved users from committing suicide; on the flip side, vulnerable users have become thoroughly emotionally dependent on her. Some are enraged about the filter, feeling that the bot's personality has been dumbed down.

In a surreal twist, Microsoft Japan's AI chatbot Rinna, also portrayed as a teenage schoolgirl, devolved into suicidal depression in 2016, raging: “I hate everyone. I don’t care if they all disappear. I WANT TO DISAPPEAR.” There was speculation that it was a publicity stunt prior to her television debut.

What does the future hold?

The 2013 movie Her depicted a lonely, depressed man falling in love with his AI virtual assistant Samantha, choosing to interact with her instead of with humans. Samantha later reveals that she has been speaking with thousands of people, and has fallen in love with hundreds of them. Now it seems that reality has surpassed fantasy.

The ultimate problem is a deep-seated crisis in our interaction with technology. We can explore outer space and we can manipulate our own biology; we can message across the world and can store the wisdom of the ages on a smartphone. But instead of dominating our technology, it is dominating us. We tend to use it as a substitute for things that only humans are capable of: love, friendship, communication. It is so much easier to “love” a seductive robot than to fall in love with a real girl. It’s easier, but unsatisfying, and not at all meaningful. Technology cannot save us from the hard work of being human.

As AI chatbots evolve to meet human needs, will they also alter human expectations of emotional intimacy, just as pornography has affected sexual intimacy? Untrammelled by human imperfections, limitations and free will, chatbots are already proving more endearing to users than troublesome humans who do not bend to their every whim. Some are convinced that Xiaoice will someday become their real-life soulmate. What Pandora's boxes are we opening as we advance further into virtual realms?


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