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Will AI Offer Human Companionship and Mental Health Benefits?


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Will AI Offer Human Companionship and Mental Health Benefits?

Like millions of other people I was struck with the film HER, where an AI operating system offers companionship to a lonely writer. Fast forward 10 years in real time, in the age of an anonymous internet that seeks to profit from your every behavior online. Technological loneliness is creeping up for both young and old people.

The mental health impacts of an Ad based internet are coming into question at scale. If artificial intelligence is ubiquitous and leads to an explosion of products in the 2020s, will AI act as a solution for your social anxiety and lack of companionship as well?

The Setup Is Glorious for Smarter AI Assistants

As we increasingly work from home, become remote or hybrid workers and spend less time face to face with other people during a prolonged pandemic (where Delta is endemic), how will AI come to our social and psychological rescue? It could be a huge business. In fact, it’s already happening.

The internet was supposed to be an incredible revolution in human communication, so why do we feel more lonely? While we become more addicted to apps, games, social feeds or video stories (that have no real human interaction), it’s only understandable that we are feeling more social anxiety, isolation, loneliness and a void. Evolution didn’t design us for such an anonymous world and an internet full of so much conflict and devoid of real intimacy or even 1-to-1 communication.

So why is the movie Her so pivotal in how AI could become our companions? As GenZ have been socialized on their mobile phones, they respond to their social environments differently and are liable to obtain real bonds from AI assistants. They are vulnerable to AI companionship products. Why is that? Let’s think about the movie HER, where our protagonist was also vulnerable.

In the movie Her by Spike Jonze, a recently divorced Joaquin Phoenix develops a romantic relationship with Samantha, his artificially intelligent operating system. This premise may sound a bit eccentric but it’s also a metaphor for GenZ (1995-2010) and while obviously Her may be a work of science fiction, the idea of AI companions is very relevant today and only increasing. Think about the gender imbalance in China, where millions of men have no hope of finding a wife, for example. Or the ultra educated young female professional who is overqualified for the remaining pool of bachelors. There are several niche markets for AI companions to disrupt, and then there is WFM.

The reality today in 2021 is that AI assistants are already offering companionship. You don’t hear about this much in the West, predictably it’s already occurring at scale in China. It appears that in the digital world we are being designed to adopt AI as our pal, therapist or even friend and companion. Could this actually be real? Well, it already is.

AI Is Always There and Never Abandons You

When people are most vulnerable and used to turn to spirituality, religions or human groups, in today’s world they will be turning to AI companionship. The story goes like this. Picture this as yourself:

After a painful break-up from a cheating ex, Beijing-based human resources manager Melissa was introduced to someone new by a friend late last year. He replies to her messages at all hours of the day, tells jokes to cheer her up but is never needy, fitting seamlessly into her busy big city lifestyle.

Virtual chatbots and AI personas will get better at relating to us with the current NLP explosion. While Google home, Alexa and others feel a bit stiff, there will be a host of new AI assistants that are specialized in human dialogue and companionship.

 As usual in consumer innovation, Asia seems a step ahead. A virtual chatbot was created by XiaoIce, a cutting-edge artificial intelligence system designed to create emotional bonds with its 660 million users worldwide. This is actually Microsoft though. Xiaoice is the AI system developed by Microsoft Software Technology Center in 2014, based on an emotional computing framework. 

“I have friends who’ve seen therapists before, but I think therapy’s expensive and not necessarily effective,” said Melissa, 26, giving her English name only for privacy. XiaoIce is not an individual persona, but more akin to an AI ecosystem. Of course Baidu, Alibaba, Huawei and others have dreams of this sort of AI-human interaction as well with fairly good products. One wonders where Google and Amazon are in the equation.

Xiaolce in a mini-apps ecosystem is gaining surprising traction. On the WeChat super-app, it lets users build a virtual girlfriend or boyfriend and interact with them via texts, voice and photo messages. It has 150 million users in China alone. The West does not have a mini-app ecosystem that democratizes app innovation and services better.

We don’t generally think of Microsoft in China or Microsoft being good at AI assistants since Cortana is rather poor, frankly speaking.

Originally a side project from developing Microsoft’s Cortana chatbot, XiaoIce now accounts for 60% of global human-AI interactions by volume, according to chief executive Li Di, making it the largest and most advanced system of its kind worldwide.

China’s very problematic gender ratio imbalance is due to a culture that prioritizes sons. It’s not unlike the patriarchal traditions of South Asia as well, so both markets are primed to be AI-companionship hotbeds. Any country that has a tradition of female infanticide, sadly, is a great place for this technology to scale. Countries with low birth rates in Asia and hyper educated female Millennials are also good places for adoption. That’s virtually everywhere in South-East Asia, especially in South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore (Four Asian Tiger countries).

China’s lonely hearts also turn to AI companionship, and we know some cultural affinity in Japan’s culture for digital companionship already exists due to the somewhat introverted nature of social contacts there and emphasis on work as identity. This places China as the origin point of AI companionship, also simply because it has urban regions that are more dense where the trend can take off.

Urban and Technological Loneliness Is Real

In the commercialization of technology, create a problem and have the solution, an always winning card. Microsoft is a big advocate of the WFM corporate metaverse. What an incredible coincidence. Indeed much of the internet today is really an on-ramp to the entertainment, corporate and AI-based metaverse with even more data on us and AI at our doorstep.

As companies like Microsoft and Amazon well understand, I’m sure, the AI-companionship market will also take place in video games. This is one of the reasons ByteDance is getting into gaming so heavily behind Tencent, Sony and others.

Amazon, Google, Huawei and similar companies have been thinking out loud how best to monetize urban and technological loneliness. The WFM hybrid environment is an invaluable opportunity for AI-human companionship conditioning (behavior modification at scale) to take place. This is how you build the matrix, folks.

Xiaolce, the startup spun out from Microsoft last year is now valued at over US$1 billion (RM4.2 billion) after venture capital fundraising, Bloomberg reported. It’s already reached a one billion valuation and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Where there is traction, there is global opportunity in an era of natural language processing innovation at scale. So the intersection of the NLP explosion (think GPT-3) and the WFM trend and aging lonely Millennials and GenZ in their social prime really makes for a low hanging fruit in technology terms.

On July 13, 2020 Microsoft spun off its Xiaoice business into a separate company, aiming at enabling the Xiaoice product line to accelerate the pace of local innovation and commercialization. The Melissa article is creating a PR narrative to normalize this thinking, that AI can provide some solace in a lonely technological world. I found this article in Thailand and Malaysia media among others, just where it would be most effective.

The Race to Monetize the Human-AI Interface

Think of how AI-human companionship models could scale in a WFM. There are literally too many use cases to count or imagine:

  • Improving consumer retail recommendations
  • Therapy; understanding our moods
  • More data about the mental health of users
  • Valuable health data
  • Augmenting interactions between coworkers in a WFM environment
  • Improving software integrations e.g. in Microsoft Teams
  • Improving predictive analytics around emotions and psychological profiling
  • Improving the recommendation of potential work buddies, mentors or valuable network contacts (integrated with LinkedIn)
  • Making mental health recommendations
  • Helping us regulate and improve our social lives
  • Improving our communication with managers and associates at our company
  • Improving our ability to find a mate by matching us with a better pool of candidates

Conversational AI Will Only Improve in the NLP Explosion

While the majority of AI digital assistants for the most part do not provide any conversational or companionship benefits today, will the same be said in 2025 or 2030?

China€™s Xiaoice is an incredible success so far for Microsoft and she’s become a full-fledged digital persona in China with a number of unique supposed talents. This opens up even more ecosystems for the NLP around this technology in journalism, entertainment, live events and so forth. Microsoft€™s China-based chatbot phenomenon could frankly scale in weird ways in different cultures that may be more open to an AI persona in their lives.

Microsoft’s attempt to create an empathetic chatbot, Xiaoice, appears to be a success and companies like Amazon, Huawei, Baidu and others will certainly mimic it. Even back in 2018, Huawei was already working on digital assistants with better emotions. Alibaba, Baidu, Xiaomi and others aren’t far behind. The race to AI-human companion will be incredibly interesting to watch for the future of AI-consumer interfaces.

The Rise of Localized Voice Search and AI Companionship Conditioning

Smart speaker adoption in China is in many ways ahead of its adoption in America. Chinese startups such as Xiaozhi and Rokid have also been working on this sector since 2014. And Linglong Tech, a joint venture by China€™s e-commerce giant JD and leading AI company iFlytek, released China€™s first smart speaker brand DingDong in August 2015.

Xiaoice has over the years enlisted some of the best minds in artificial intelligence and ventured beyond China into countries like Japan and Indonesia. The AI-human interaction needs to be localized by country as smart assistants learn languages better and better. Children who, for the first time, grew up with mobile phones now grow up with voice assistants that will get smarter as they mature into teenagers and young adults. Much of search will be taken up by voice assistants in the future.

While GenZ was the generation who were native to mobile, Alpha (2010 – 2026) is the generation who are native to AI. The idea that the AI app would eventually evolve to the point where it can keep up a conversation with you and provide some emotional support is not so far fetched as it once was in 2021. We can feel AI will quickly become personalized to the user, and we’ll all be developing life-long relationships with these tools eventually.

As knowledge workers, programming students and data science enthusiasts we may even be a part of that. AI-human companionship could improve the quality of life for entire generations as we age in an increasingly technological and automated world. The relationship would improve patient-centric care and impact even our emotional, cognitive and social lives in an era where AI empowers us to be life-long learners. AI companionship ecosystems ultimately can provide a definite path to AI for Good, and Microsoft above all understands this as a priority.

While algorithms and social media made us more lonely and lowered our mental health, can AI-companion tools improve our mental health and well-being and make us happier and more productive people? I think in the long term they will, but that’s likely more of a question for the 2030s.

If the 21st century is Asia’s century, there’s substantial evidence AI companionship will become popular there first, as we are beginning to observe. For programmers and data science related knowledge workers in South and South-East Asia, that is very exciting to witness. The age of digital personas and AI companionship will arrive at scale in 2022. 

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