Simple beauty or AI breakthrough? Chinese humanoid chats with U.S. journalist

Updated 2017-04-25 14:31:13 CGTN
Jiajia (M), Kevin Kelly (L) and the robot's development team leader, Professor Chen Xiaoping (R) in Hefei, Anhui Province, on April 24, 2017.

Jiajia (M), Kevin Kelly (L) and the robot's development team leader, Professor Chen Xiaoping (R) in Hefei, Anhui Province, on April 24, 2017.

"Do you like me?" In an international Skype chat with famous American journalist and technology observer Kevin Kelly on Monday, Chinese homegrown humanoid Jiajia -- Xinhua news agency's special "correspondent" -- threw out such a question.

"Yes," Kelly replied, after a few seconds of silence.

"I thought so," Jiajia responded calmly.

The dialogue took place between San Francisco, California and Hefei, Anhui Province, marking a conversation that was both human-to-machine and transatlantic.

Jiajia had previously provoked heated discussions online and before the English-language live-stream began, with many reserving praise for her unprecedented beauty, and some netizens calling her a realistic "robot goddess". Some even asked "am I in the theme park of 'Westworld' (American sci-fi TV series) now?"

However, the video chat didn't go well at first. Differences in the way a human and a robot talk and voice recognition errors caused by network connectivity delays because of the long distance greatly affected Jiajia's performance. A netizen joked after the live video began that Jiajia is just like an ordinary woman, whom you'll never hear the end of.

However, soon after Jiajia gradually got back on track. She told Kelly that her age was "a secret", which sparked laughter among netizens. Subsequently, they talked about the weather, diet, sightseeing, habits, and topics about famous actors and arts.

It was challenging for Jiajia, when Kelly - co-founder of tech magazine Wired - even threw out philosophical questions such as "who are you?" But Jiajia responded properly to most of the questions.

"The challenging dialogue showed to us that it is extremely valuable for the development of artificial intelligence robots, and she can get roughly '70 marks' for her performance," said Professor Chen Xiaoping, lead researcher of the development team, and director of the Robotics Laboratory at the University of Science and Technology of China.

Researchers at the university spent three years working on Jiajia before she made her debut on Monday.

The machine's appearance was modeled after the features of five women from the university, with the aim of ensuring the robot turned out "attractive," according to a report from the Beijing News last year.

Some netizens asked whether Jiajia is just another Apple intelligent assistant Siri with a pretty face, but in fact, she is more than that.

Not only does she have a human-like appearance that other AI assistants or chatting robots lack, but also she can develop on conversations with humans, thanks to the AI machine learning technology built within her. Therefore, they can accomplish a correspondent's tasks in answering random and unpredictable questions, or even asking rhetorical questions during conversation with humans.

However, smooth communication with humans via natural languages is still an "ultimate challenge" facing AI developers nowadays. Improvements and breakthroughs to language comprehension are still needed, as could be seen when Jiajia stumbled over basic questions and gave out wrong answers or replied after long periods of hesitation.

As Kelly said, we are still at the beginning of a beginning.

However, talking with smart machines using natural languages remains a deep desire for mankind.

"How can we solve the problems of the world today?... As a Chinese AI robot, are you able to provide creative solutions for pollution and other issues?" One netizen asked during the live interview.

Robotics and AI expert Kelly has pointed out that although artificial intelligence has not yet entered a phase of exponential growth, the technology is still expanding rapidly. Many feel threatened by the prospect of artificial intelligence taking over humans, but there is no doubt that opportunities for man and machine to co-exist will come about.

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