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You’ve got a Friend in Me – Our Changing Relationship with A.I.

Since Siri first stepped into our lives in 2011, we’re being introduced to more and more digital assistants. We’ve met Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google’s Google Now. We know them, but do we love them?

Apparently, it’s important that we bond with said digital assistants and snappy comebacks appear to be the surest path to our hearts. So, if you ask Siri if she has a boyfriend, she might respond with, “Why? So we can get ice cream together, and listen to music, and travel across galaxies, only to have it end in slammed doors, heartbreak and loneliness? Sure, where do I sign up?” It seems to know a smart-assed digital assistant is to love her – but just be prepared for that love to be unrequited.

Not to be outdone, Google is also brushing up on its witty repartee for it’s new Digital Assistant – thanks to some recruits from the Onion and Pixar. A recent Mediapost article said that Google had just assembled a team of writers from those two sources – tapping the Onion for caustic sarcasm and Pixar for a gentler, more human touch.

But can we really be friends with a machine, even if it is funny?

Microsoft thinks so. They’ve unveiled a new chatbot in China called Xiaoice (pronounced Shao-ice). Xiaoice takes on the persona of a 17 year old girl that responds to questions like “How would you like others to comment on you when you die one day?” with the plaintiff “The world would not be much different without me.” Perhaps this isn’t as clever as Siri’s comebacks, but there’s an important difference: Siri’s responses were specifically scripted to respond to anticipated question; while Xiaoice actually talks with you by using true artificial intelligence and linguistic processing.

In a public test on WeChat, Xiaoice received 1.5 million chat group invitations in just 72 hours. As of earlier this year, she had had more than 10 billion conversations. In a blog post, Xiaoice’s “father”, Yongdong Wang, head of the Microsoft Application and Services Group East Asia, said, “Many see Xiaoice as a partner and friend, and are willing to confide in her just as they do with their human friends. Xiaoice is teaching us what makes a relationship feel human, and hinting at a new goal for artificial intelligence: not just analyzing databases and driving cars, but making people happier.”

When we think of digital assistants, we naturally think of the advantages that machines have over humans: unlimited memory, access to the entire web, vastly superior number crunching skills and much faster processing speeds. This has led to “cognitive offloading” – humans transferring certain mental processing tasks to machines. We now trust Google more than our own memory for retrieving information – just as we trust calculators more than our own limited mathematical abilities. But there should be some things that humans are just better at. Being human, for instance. We should be more empathetic – better able to connect with other people. A machine shouldn’t “get us” better than our spouse or best friend.

For now, that’s probably still true. But what if you don’t have a spouse, or even a best friend? Is having a virtual friend better than nothing at all? Recent studies have shown that robotic pets seem to ease loneliness with isolated seniors. More research is needed, but it’s not really surprising to learn that a warm, affectionate robot is better than nothing at all. What was surprising was that in one study, seniors preferred a robotic dog to the real thing.

The question remains, however: Can we truly have a relationship with a machine? Can we feel friendship – or even love – when we know that the machine can’t do the same? This goes beyond the high-tech flirtation of discovering Siri’s or Google’s “easter egg” responses to something more fundamental. It’s touching on what appears to be happening in China, where millions are making a chatbot their personal confident. I suspect there are more than a few lonely Chinese who would consider Xiaoice their best friend.

And – on many levels – that scares the hell out of me.