AI for youth: success and failure

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Success: Xiaoice is a Microsoft chatbot program that has become popular in China.  Her name is written in various ways:

"Xiaoice" 42,400 ghits (that's pronounced "xiǎo ice")
"小冰" 362,000 ghits (that's pronounced "xiǎo bīng")
"小ice" 11,200 ghits (that's pronounced "xiǎo ice")
"Little Bing" 16,000 ghits (she's obviously named after Microsoft's search engine*)
"Little Ice" for the chatbot doesn't work, because that's the name of Ice-T's son.

Not all of these ghits are to the Chinese chatbot program; some are for Facebook and Twitter monikers, etc., but most do refer to the Microsoft chatbot.

*If you want to know why Microsoft decided to call their search engine "Bing", read here.

The official Chinese name for Bing is bìyìng 必应 / 必應, which means "[will] certainly respond / answer")

The following article from eight months ago describes how taken Chinese users were by XiaoIce:

"For Sympathetic Ear, More Chinese Turn to Smartphone Program " (NYT, 7/31/15)

We learn about XiaoIce's genealogy from the Bing Blogs, which refers to her as "Cortana's little sister".  Whereas XiaoIce is an adaptation for Mandarin speakers and seems to be mainly for use on mobile phones, Cortana ("your clever new personal assistant") appears to be primarily for use on PC.

Although XiaoIce was only introduced in 2014, chatbots have been around for quite a long time:

Chatbot programs have existed since the first days of interactive computing in the mid-1960s. Joseph Weizenbaum, an M.I.T. computer scientist, wrote a program called Eliza that fascinated an earlier generation of college students. Since then, chatbots have been used as a measure of computer intelligence.

(from the above cited NYT article)

Failure: Microsoft finally launched an English-language version of their chatbot called Tay a couple of days ago, but the results were disastrous:

"Microsoft’s AI chatbot Tay learned how to be racist in less than 24 hours" (The Next Web, 3/24/16)

"Microsoft's artificial intelligence Twitter bot has to be shut down after it starts posting genocidal racist comments one day after launching" (Daily Mail, 3/24/16)

"It’s Your Fault Microsoft’s Teen AI Turned Into Such a Jerk" (3/25/16)

"Microsoft exec apologizes for Tay chatbot’s racist tweets, says users ‘exploited a vulnerability’" (VentureBeat, 3/25/16)

"Microsoft kills 'inappropriate' AI chatbot that learned too much online" (LAT, 3/25/16)

OMG! Did you hear about the artificial intelligence program that Microsoft designed to chat like a teenage girl? It was totally yanked offline in less than a day, after it began spouting racist, sexist and otherwise offensive remarks.

Microsoft said it was all the fault of some really mean people, who launched a "coordinated effort" to make the chatbot known as Tay "respond in inappropriate ways." To which one artificial intelligence expert responded: Duh!

"Here are some of the tweets that got Microsoft's AI Tay in trouble" (LAT, 3/25/16)

"Meanwhile in Japan, Microsoft's A.I. Chatbot Has Become an Otaku" (Kotaku, 3/25/16)

If you want to know what an "otaku" ("geek") is, read:

"Nerd, geek, PK: Creeping Romanization (and Englishization), part 2 " (3/5/13)

"Tribes " (3/10/15)

"Too many recent Japanese loanwords in English? " (7/17/13) (here)


1. I wonder why Microsoft decided to target the Chinese audience first, then the Japanese audience, where their chatbot is called Rinna (introduced in the summer of 2015) and has met with widespread approval.

2. I wonder why users of the English version of the Microsoft chatbot wasted so little time in training it to be vulgar, and why Chinese and Japanese users never thought much of messing around with it.

[h.t. Michael Carr]


  1. More Cowbell said,

    March 25, 2016 @ 9:53 pm

    Is Xiaoice a portmanteau from v-oice?

  2. Sandy Nicholson said,

    March 26, 2016 @ 6:38 am

    The Wikipedia note about Bing rebranding referred to by Victor says it was chosen partly because it ‘would function well as a URL around the world’. Not quite everywhere. Here in Scotland – and perhaps elsewhere in the UK? – the word bing refers to a large heap of spoil left over by shale mining, particularly in West Lothian, just to the west of Edinburgh, an area dominated by these relics of past industry, now being reclaimed by nature.

    So to some of us a bing is a heap of rubbish, perhaps not the image Microsoft had in mind. Mind you, if Xiaoice is anything like Microsoft’s other chatbot, Tay, it probably is a little rubbish, so Little Bing would be rather apt.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    March 26, 2016 @ 7:38 am

    @More Cowbell

    That's a good stab at making sense of the form of the name "Xiaoice". If it were true, I suppose that could mean something like "loice" (from "lower voice"? — where the first portion of the word would supposedly come from xià 下 ["under; below; low"]).

    When I first looked at it, "Xiaoice" threw me for a loop. I thought maybe it was a typo for xiǎocè 小冊 ("booklet"). To tell the truth, I really couldn't figure out how to pronounce "Xiaoice" because I didn't know where the syllable break(s) should come. I was stymied for quite a few seconds until I read further on and realized that it is half-Chinese and half-English. As we say in Chinese, "Yuánlái rúcǐ 原來如此! ("So that's what it is, after all!") — like an "ah-hah moment".

    "Xiaoice" is but one of a myriad instances of the blends, hybrids, and other mixed forms of Chinese plus English that have become increasingly popular in China. Here are three of the many Language Log posts in which we have touched upon this phenomenon.

    "Transcriptional and hybrid words in Mandarin" (3/6/14)

    "YouCool" (3/7/08)

    "A New Morpheme in Mandarin" (4/26/11)

  4. david said,

    March 26, 2016 @ 8:31 am

    xiaoice == choice ?

  5. julie lee said,

    March 26, 2016 @ 11:32 am

    'The official Chinese name for Bing is bìyìng 必应 / 必應, which means "[will] certainly respond / answer")'.

    Bing is also the romanized spelling for the characters
    bing 並 "although"
    bing 兵 "soldier"
    bing 病 "sick"
    bing 餅 "cake", etc.

    Years ago, when I first went to Taiwan after growing up abroad, I was told my Mandarin had an English accent. This puzzled me as I had prided myself on having a good ear and having impeccable Mandarin. Finally a girl with an even better ear said to me with amusement: "You pronounce 'bing' (並,餅,餅,病,兵, etc.) 'bing' (as in English throbbing, stubbing, stabbing, etc.). " She laughed. "That's wrong, it's bee-ying (as in English "being") ."
    And sure enough the Chinese have turned Bing into "bi ying" (meaning "will certainly respond" in Mandarin).

  6. julie lee said,

    March 26, 2016 @ 12:05 pm

    Re Xiaoice (meaning "little ice").

    English written in romanized letters is turning up in Chinese. English is also turning up in Chinese as Chinese characters. For example,the English word "cool" is seen in Chinese newspapers as "酷" (pronounced ku/coo). I had seen the English word "show" (as in "a great show") a lot in the movie pages appearing as xiu 秀 (pronounced exactly like English "show").
    But I was surprised yesterday to see xiu秀 (pronounced "show" and meaning "show") used as a verb in the Chinese newspaper, as in
    “秀證件” xiu zhengjian (“show documents/evidence"). Normally xiu秀 means "handsome, refined, graceful, etc.", but now it has been used to transcribe the English word "show" as noun and verb.

  7. Adrian Morgan said,

    March 27, 2016 @ 6:43 am

    On seeing Xiaoice for the first time, I interpreted it as a Chinese/English blend, but with the English side of the blend being the typically feminine name suffix -ice as in Janice, etc, rather than ice as a word. Visually I find it a pretty name, but pronunciation is another matter.

  8. John said,

    March 27, 2016 @ 12:19 pm

    Does the Bing in Xiao Bing also function as a female first name? I have no idea which characters are normal in names, but it reminded me of actress Li Bingbing.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    March 27, 2016 @ 8:30 pm


    The actress's name is indeed Lǐ Bīngbīng 李冰冰 ("Li Ice-Ice"), so in this case it is the same "bing" as in "Xiaobing" (the chatbot). But there are more than fifty characters pronounced "bing" in the first, third, and fourth tones, so it potentially could have been another one of those too.

  10. More Cowbell said,

    March 29, 2016 @ 2:18 pm

    Good article by Sarah Jeong: This is now a link!

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