Microsoft throws its empathetic chatbot Xiaoice into an independent entity, the American software giant (in Chinese) said on Monday, confirming a previous report by the Chinese news site Chuhaipost in June.
The announcement came months after Microsoft announced its Cortana voice assistant app was closed in China, among other countries, late last year.
Over the years, Xiaoice has recruited some of the best minds in artificial intelligence and has ventured beyond China to countries like Japan and Indonesia. Microsoft said it called the shots to speed up Xiaoice’s “localized innovation” and the establishment of the chatbot “business ecosystem”.
The spin-off will see new Microsoft entity licensing technologies for research and development after Xiaoice and will continue to use the Xiaoice brand (and Rinna in Japanese), while Microsoft will retain its ownership interests in the new company.
In 2014, a small team of Microsoft researchers on Bing unveiled Xiaoice, which means “Little Bing” in Chinese. The bot immediately caused a sensation in China and was considered by many to be their virtual girlfriend. The chatbot came just weeks after Microsoft deployed Cortana in the country. Inspired by the personality of a teenage girl, Xiaoice aims to add a more human and social element to chatbots. In Microsoft’s own words, she wants to be friends with a user.
Like all foreign companies, Microsoft must fight Chinese censorship. In 2017, Xiaoice was removed from Tencent’s QQ instant messaging service for suspected politically sensitive speech.
The project involved some of the most prestigious scientists in the AI world, ranging from Lu Qi, who then joined Baidu as director of operations and brought Y Combinator to China; Jing Kun, who took a job at Baidu to lead the research giant’s smart devices; and Harry Shum, a former executive in Microsoft’s legendary Artificial Intelligence and Research unit and now sits on the board of directors for the new News Break application.
Shum will be president of the new autonomous entity of Xiaoice. Li Di, general manager of Xiaoice, will serve as general manager. Chen Zhan, developer of the Japanese chatbot Rinna, is appointed general manager of the Japanese office.
The new company will retain the right to use the “Xiaoice” and “Rinna” brands, with the mission of further developing its client base in the Greater China region, Japan and Indonesia.
Microsoft claimed that Xiaoice had a reach of 660 million users and 450 million third-party smart devices worldwide at the last count. The chatbot found applications in areas such as finance, retail, automotive, real estate and fashion, in which it claimed that it could “exploit the context, the tone and the emotions of the text to create unique designs in seconds ”.