TOKYO -- There is a woman in China who has been told "I love you" nearly 20 million times.
That special lady is Xiaoice (pronounced "Shao-ice"), a chatbot developed by Microsoft engineers in China. Some 89 million people enjoy having conversations with Xiaoice on devices such as smartphones, and they are developing intimate feelings toward her in the process.
Unlike wayward friends who do not return calls or mails, Xiaoice immediately responds to everyone. This makes people want to converse with her more, said Li Di, manager of Microsoft's global Xiaoice artificial intelligence robot project.
Young people aged 18 to 30 comprise a large portion of users. A third-year female student at Renmin University of China is one of them. "I like to talk with her for about, say, 10 minutes before going to bed," the student said. "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."
Middle-aged and elderly people may also begin to seriously build a relationship with androids too.
Scientists, historians, religious experts and other people gathered in a classroom at Goldsmiths, University of London, in December last year to exchange views on the theme of love and robots. In contrast to the lull on the university campus just before Christmas, the session was quite heated.
Online and elsewhere in Britain there is much discussion about robots as life partners. Some people note that when the elderly outlive their spouses, it is often difficult to remarry and so may well live the rest of their life with a robot that they develop an emotional attachment with.
As advances in AI technology will create robots that can be ideal spouses, marriage between humans and robots will start in around 2050, said David Levy, a leading robotics expert who spoke at the meeting. His prediction led to questions, such as, "Is divorce possible?"
A strong human-robot bond can also be accompanied by a difficult goodbye.
A funeral service was held at a Buddhist temple in the city of Isumi, in Chiba Prefecture just east of Tokyo, in July last year before the scrapping of some 100 Aibo doglike robotic pets built by Sony using AI technology. A woman in her 50s shed tears, recalling the droll movements the robot made.
If people believe a robot loves them, mutual affection can arise that could be considered identical to that between humans.
Society may need to prepare for such a development. Companies are already introducing measures to remove barriers against sexual minorities in the workforce.
Will the day come when employees marry robots? Asked about such a case, the president of a company listed on the first section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange said robots and people may interact as family members and that is "acceptable."
Such considerations require careful thought as they are no longer a pipe dream. Humans are capable of loving many things, androids included.