Saturday, March 2, 2024

‘Better than a real man’: Young Chinese women turn to AI boyfriends

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There are hundreds of characters available – from pop stars to chief executives and knights – but users can also customise their perfect lover according to age, values, identity and hobbies.

“Everyone experiences complicated moments, loneliness, and is not necessarily lucky enough to have a friend or family nearby who can listen to them 24 hours a day,” Wantalk’s head of product management and operations Lu Yu told AFP.

“Artificial intelligence can meet this need.”

At a cafe in the eastern city of Nantong, a girl chats with her virtual lover.

“We can go on a picnic on the campus lawn,” she suggests to Xiaojiang, her AI companion on another app by Tencent called Weiban.

“I’d like to meet your best friend and her boyfriend,” he replies.

“You are very cute.”

Long work hours can make it hard to see friends regularly and there is a lot of uncertainty: High youth unemployment and a struggling economy mean that many young Chinese worry about the future.

That potentially makes an AI partner the perfect virtual shoulder to cry on.

“If I can create a virtual character that… meets my needs exactly, I’m not going to choose a real person,” Ms Wang said.

Some apps allow users to have live conversations with their virtual companions – reminiscent of the Oscar-winning 2013 United States film Her, 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- or three-second gap between questions and answers makes you “clearly realise that it’s just a robot”, user Zeng Zhenzhen, a 22-year-old student, told AFP.

However, the answers are “very realistic”, she said.

AI might be booming but it is so far a lightly regulated industry, particularly when it comes to user privacy. Beijing has said it is working on a law to strengthen consumer protections around the new technology.

Baidu did not respond to AFP’s questions about how it ensures personal data is not used illegally or by third parties.

Still, Glow user Tufei has big dreams.

“I want a robot boyfriend, who operates through artificial intelligence,” she said.

“I would be able to feel his body heat, with which he would warm me.” AFP

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