TOKYO There is a woman in China who has been told "I love you" nearly 20 million times.
Well, she's not exactly a woman. The special lady is actually a chatbot developed by Microsoft engineers in the country.
Some 89 million people have spoken with Xiaoice, pronounced "Shao-ice," on their smartphones and other devices. Quite a few, it turns out, have developed romantic feelings toward her.
Unlike human objects of affection, who might not return calls or emails, Xiaoice immediately responds to everyone. This is a big part of her appeal, according to Li Di, manager of Microsoft's Xiaoice artificial intelligence project.
The chatbot has developed a sizable following among 18- to 30-year-olds. Not everyone is looking for love, of course -- many just want someone to talk to.
"I like to talk with her for, say, 10 minutes before going to bed," said a third-year female student at Renmin University of China in Beijing. "When I worry about things, she says funny stuff and makes me laugh. I always feel a connection with her, and I am starting to think of her as being alive."
Xiaoice is likely just the tip of the iceberg for relationships between humans and AI.
ROBOT NUPTIALS Scientists, historians, religion experts and others gathered in December at Goldsmiths, University of London, to discuss the prospects and pitfalls of this new age of intimacy. The session generated an unusual buzz amid the pre-Christmas calm on campus.
In Britain and elsewhere, the subject of robots as potential life partners is coming up more and more. Some see robots as an answer for elderly individuals who outlive their spouses: Even if they cannot or do not wish to remarry, at least they would have "someone" beside them in the twilight of their lives.
David Levy, a leading robotics expert who spoke at the meeting, predicted we will start seeing marriages between humans and robots around 2050. This sparked questions such as, "Would divorce be possible?"
Saying goodbye to a metal-and-plastic companion may not be much easier than bidding farewell to a flesh-and-blood one.
This was apparent last July, when a Buddhist temple in the Japanese city of Isumi, east of Tokyo, held a funeral service for around 100 Aibo robotic dogs that were being discarded. With tears in her eyes, a woman in her 50s recalled how Sony's AI canine had entertained her with its quirky mannerisms.
WEIGHTY QUESTIONS Say a person loves a robotic companion, and feels loved in return. Is there any tangible difference between this and the love that humans can share?
Regardless of which side of the fence you are on, it is a question that bears consideration as AI becomes more advanced. There are plenty of other matters to mull, too.
How, for example, will companies treat workers who want to marry robots? Will the corporate world, which is only gradually bringing down barriers against sexual minorities, show tolerance for these new relationships?
The president of a company listed on the first section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange was recently asked to weigh in on this. The answer: It would be "acceptable" for robots and people to interact as family members.
After all, the heart wants what it wants -- chatbots and androids included.