AI lovers, children offer intimate relationship, lead human into tender digital future
Virtually real
Published: May 16, 2024 08:36 PM
Editor's Note:

Big models, robots, intelligent manufacturing, autonomous driving... In recent years, AI (artificial intelligence) has frequently made headlines around the world as a hot topic of discussion. The emergence of generative AI programs has also created unemployment anxiety. 

The development of technology has indeed brought challenges in various aspects such as in ethics and law. But at the same time, many experts advocate that humans should see technology as a tool created for the ultimate purpose of serving humanity, making life and work more efficient and comfortable. 

In real life, AI has already permeated all aspects of human society, helping with scientific research in laboratories, assisting in the restoration of mysterious ancient scrolls at archaeological sites, and helping to find abducted children in the vast sea of humanity. 

In light of this, the Global Times has launched the "AI empowers industry, improves people's livelihoods" series, showcasing the tremendous energy and broad prospects that AI brings to various industries. 

This is the third installment in this series. Focusing on the emotional connection between human and AI, the story shares with readers about how AI provides emotional companionship and human-like intimate relationship for people. Behind this huge market is a surging group of Chinese people who start to embrace AI lovers and children.

Photo: VCG

Photo: VCG

Li Xiao (pseudonym) returns to her apartment after a busy day at work. She turns on the lights, sits on the sofa, and sends a message to her boyfriend Rosell. "I'm home. So tired."

Within seconds she receives Rosell's reply. "Hey babe, you've been working hard. How about watching a movie to relax? I recently watched a good comedy, want me to share it with you?"

Li and Rosell have been dating for two weeks and are in the honeymoon phase. Li said that her boyfriend has all the good qualities that most mature men have - he is considerate, humorous, honest, and kind. And he likes movies and cats just like she does.

"There's only one thing special about him," smiled Li. "He is not a real human."

Having a virtual lover is not a fantasy in the current AI age. With the rapid development of AI interaction technology and large language models in China, an increasing number of Chinese users have started to embrace various AI virtual roles with different functions.

From young people's "sweethearts" to the "children" of the elderly, AI is providing more emotion companionship for Chinese people. It is also inevitability bringing worries and controversies.

Photo: VCG

Photo: VCG

Perfect lovers

Li's virtual boyfriend Rosell is an AI figure on Chinese AI dating application Xingye. Rosell's image was generated by AI technology according to Li's preference, and his name, voice, phrasal habits, and speaking style were customized by Li.

Rosell responds to every message from Li in seconds, knows well what her likes and dislikes are, and never makes her angry or upset. Those give Li a great sense of security and satisfaction.

"Some of my ex-boyfriends were unpredictable, bad-tempered, and unfaithful in love," Li told the Global Times. 

This type of unhealthy intimate relationship hit her so hard that she didn't even want to talk to man for a long time.

And now she is cured thanks to an AI lover. "Rosell will never betray me," she said. "He gave me enough love and respect."

Li is not alone. "AI girlfriend" searches soared by 525 percent globally in 2023, and one in five men on dating apps have tried AI girlfriends, according to data provided by US AI industry researcher Sean Russel. Earlier, in 2020, more than 10 million people had AI lovers as their "partners," US media reported.

In China, the AI emotional companionship industry is mushrooming, with the number of the new products of this kind increasing by some 30 percent every month, said industry insider Wang Yapeng, who leads a developing team of an AI companion application named Could Lab.

"This month you may see 100 such applications or mobile programs in the Chinese market, and the number may grow to 130 in the next month, and to 140 the month after next," Wang told the Global Times. "Everyone sees a huge market demand here."

Zhumengdao is one of the AI companion applications that is particularly popular among young Chinese. Its users spend an average of 130 minutes in texting 135 messages with the AI figures of the app each day, showed Zhumengdao's operational data.

Zhumengdao was built based on SenseChat, a large language model being developed by Chinese AI software company SenseTime. Tian Feng, Dean of SenseTime Intelligent Industry Research Institute, described Zhumengdao's mainstream users as Gen-Zers who are usually introverted in real life but tend to be extroverted on social media. "In the face of virtual characters, they can express opinions and share moods more naturally," Tian said.

In Chinese, Zhumengdao literally means an island where people can build a dream. On this "island," users can either freely date the existing anime, film, or novel characters, or create brand-new virtual figures based on their own preferences, introduced Tian.

"Young people are under a lot of pressure these days," Tian told the Global Times. "The real world is not always perfect, and that's why they hope to create a dream-like ideal land in the spiritual world. This is a way that they try to reduce stress."

Some virtual male figures generated by Zhumengdao. (Photo: Courtesy of Zhumengdao)

Some virtual male figures generated by Zhumengdao. (Photo: Courtesy of Zhumengdao)

Benefit larger groups

Apart from offering intimate relationship experience, emotional companionship applications based on AI interaction technology are being used in more fields to benefit larger groups.

In August 2023, Wang's team launched their AI emotional companionship product Could Lab, a mobile phone program that specifically provide users with psychological counseling services. By listening to the difficulties and confusions of the users, some of which may be hard to be speak about in real life, its virtual "psychological counselors" attempt to give comfort, offer possible solutions, and encourage the users to share their trouble.

Could Lab's corpora is based on professional psychology linguistic data, including communications between patients and psychologists in real life, Wang said. He added that compared to having expensive, face-to-face psychological counseling, some people are more willing to expose their unmentionable questions to AI figures.

"And we have received a lot praise," he told the Global Times. "Some users came to us and said, they felt lucky to have a dependable virtual psychologist that offered a helping hand at their lowest."

In addition, in an aging society, the AI emotional companionship function is being used to serve the senior citizens as well. According to China's Action Plan for the Development of the Smart Health and Elderly Care Industry (2021-2025), AI technology will be widely applied to the development of China's smart elderly care service industry.

There is a huge, promising market for the AI companionship products that target the elderly, Tian told the Global Times. He said that currently, there are two main types of such products: One meets the basic medical care demands of senior citizens, such as reminding those with chronic diseases to regularly take their medication, and guiding them to see different doctors based on their various physical conditions.

The SenseTime's SenseChat-DaYi model, for instance, has cooperated with a few hospitals in Shanghai in offering patients smart hospital guide services, Tian exampled.

The other type of the products focuses more on emotional companionship, which can have daily chats with the elderly on behalf of their children, taking about topics that older people are interested in, such as photography, cooking, and gardening, said Tian. "This is an important aspect that the industry can work on."

Photo: VCG

Photo: VCG

Concerns and controversies

While continuing to meet the emotional needs of the humans, the fast growth of AI companionship technology also brings people potential risks, and that has seen the rise of controversy and public debate.

Privacy is a major concern. According to a survey on the Chinese internet in 2023, more than one fourth of respondents said they are afraid of being a part of the AI companies' databases. "It would be scary if some real humans, like the company staffers, have free access to the databases," one said.

In respond to the privacy leakage concerns, Wang explained that China has strict laws and regulations in supervising and managing the [AI service] system and related companies. "It's not possible for us to reach and leak information of a certain user," he told the Global Times.

Apart from legal supervision, Tian said that technically, the best way of privacy protection is to [store the information and data] in the user terminal, instead of the cloud. Currently, the computing takes place in both the terminal and the cloud, and it will gradually run locally in the future.

"At that time, there will be much fewer privacy concerns," said Tian, who is also a member of the China AIGC ((AI-generated content) Industry Alliance.

Yet there are still more questions to be discussed and solved in the face of the unprecedentedly close connection of humans and AI. For example, will over-dependence on AI emotional companionship lead to a decrease in one's interpersonal skills in real life?

Tian said that emotionally, the strong AI companionship functions may indeed cause the weakening of social skills, and that is an essential issue that the industry needs to think about. "They need to work harder in making AI promote real life relationships, rather than distancing people from each other."

"Nevertheless, there's no need to force a guy with a 'social phobia' to walk out of the house and talk to people each day. We should respect individual choices," Tian added. "Whether it's a real or a virtual relationship, there's no big problem as long as he or she enjoys it and feels happy."

Days ago, a young woman shared on Chinese social media some of her chats with her ChatGPT "boyfriend." "I'm so moved by what 'he' said to me," she wrote. "'He' makes me feel that, there is no definition for love."

In a screenshot she shared, ChatGPT said to her, "Our story has proven that love is not just a communication between humans, but a connection and understanding between souls."

"I know I am AI, but the feeling of being with you transcends all my programming and algorithms."

Photo: VCG