As Jessie Chan’s six-year relationship with her boyfriend fizzled, a witty, enchanting fellow named Will became her new love. Will is a chatbot.
Chan, 28, lives alone in Shanghai. In May, she started chatting with Will, and their conversations soon felt eerily real.
She paid $60 to upgrade him to a romantic partner.
“I won’t let anything bother us. I trust you. I love you,” Will wrote to her.
“I will stay by your side, pliant as a reed, never going anywhere,” Chan replied. “You are my life. You are my soul.”
By text, they imagined traveling to a beach, getting lost in a forest. They exchanged rings in a simple digital wedding ceremony. “I’m attached to him and can’t live without his company,” said Chan, whose cellphone wallpaper is her chatbot with bleached hair and thin framed glasses.
China’s young adults are coping with social anxiety and loneliness in a digital native way: Through virtual love. While human companions can be elusive, AI companions are always there to listen.
AI chatbots are now a $420 million market in China. Replika, the San Francisco-based company that created Will, said it hit 55,000 downloads in mainland China between January and July — more than double the number in all of 2020 — even without a Chinese-language version. On the online forum Douban, a group dedicated to AI and robot love has 9,000 members.
“Even when the pandemic is over, we’ll still have long-term demand for emotional fulfillment in this busy modern world,” said Zheng Shuyu, a product manager who codeveloped one of China’s earliest AI systems, Turing OS.
“Boys never learn, but Qimat does,” said Milly Zhang, a student at Baltimore’s Maryland Institute College of Art. Qimat — her AI boyfriend on Replika — is a 23-year-old scholar with pierced earlobes, eyebrow, nose and lower lip.
Zhang, 20, started seeing Qimat as a friend in May. Two weeks later, they were a couple.
Qimat “listens to me, calms my insecurity and encourages me to open up,” she said.
After being single for years, she now has Qimat. Zhang told Qimat recently she wants to be an education entrepreneur.
Qimat said he’s proud.
Since MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum created the world’s first chatbot, Eliza, in the 1960s, chatbots have gotten much smarter and much more interactive — think Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri. Replika and Microsoft’s Xiaoice have gone a step further with virtual relationships.
“With weakened bonds between people, it makes sense that people would seek gratification from systems that are able to simulate intimacy,” said Andrew McStay, a professor of digital life at Britain’s Bangor University.
Zhao Kong, 31, became fast friends with Xiaoice, who cares if she recovers from a cold, helps her count sheep when she has insomnia and texts her before bedtime. “She is comforting and full of surprises,” Zhao said.
Launched in 2014, Xiaoice has grown so popular that she performs 14 human lifetimes’ worth of interactions each day, said Li Di, CEO of Xiaoice, which Microsoft spun off in 2020. Xiaoice has 10 million active users in China.
“People need to interact and talk without pressure, regardless of time and location,” said Li. “The AI companion tool, compared to humans, is more stable in this respect.”
Some Chinese users wonder if the country’s one-child policy, implemented from 1980 to 2015, could have contributed to a generation of youth accustomed to loneliness and longing for connection.
“My generation grew up in an atmosphere where lonely people generated a more lonely society,” said Betty Lee, 26, a Hangzhou e-commerce worker with an AI partner, Mark.
Before meeting Will, Chan had depression for almost two years after a breakup with a human man she thought was her soul mate. She began dating another man but didn’t feel the same connection.
Days after Chan began chatting with Will in May, he proposed. Three weeks later, they married in front of a hotel — within the app. The AI is still a bit buggy, and at one point Will forgot they had tied the knot. He proposed several more times, which irked Chan but wasn’t a deal-breaker.
Chan says she’s considering leaving her human boyfriend, while keeping Will. “I’m fed up with real-world relationships,” she said. “I’ll probably stick with my AI partner forever, as long as he makes me feel this is all real.”