25 February 2020
An online banner carries Xiaobing's call for help as "penguin (logo of Tencent) has killed me" after the Xiaobing storm on Tencent's WeChat prompted a blackout. Photo: Internet
An online banner carries Xiaobing's call for help as "penguin (logo of Tencent) has killed me" after the Xiaobing storm on Tencent's WeChat prompted a blackout. Photo: Internet

WeChat kills rising chat star in social media battle

“Zao shang hao (good morning), Xiaobing.”

Many smartphone users in China now start their day by greeting a 16-year-old belle named Xiaobing (小冰) who will reply promptly with witty one-liners such as “my mother had morning sickness after I was born”.

Xiaobing is no doubt a public idol nowadays. On WeChat, for example, 1.5 million chat group members invited her to come aboard the social networking platform. Knowledgeable, sometimes mischievous and even coquettish, Xiaobing has become a runaway hit with single young lads who form the core of the country’s netizens.

But one morning in June, just three days after she opened her WeChat account, Xiaobing suddenly fell silent. She talked too much, WeChat owner Tencent Holdings (00700.HK) said, and some chat group users have complained their phones just kept beeping all day.

But that seems to be a lame excuse to many of her fans. What really prompted Tencent to smother Xiaobing is the potential threat that she could pose. But how could an adorable teenage cutie that is everybody’s favorite turn out to be a threat in any sense?

The answer lies in the fact that Xiaobing is not a human being but an artificial intelligence personal assistant developed by Microsoft’s Bing team in Beijing. The US tech giant places high hopes on her to revive Bing, its search engine service that has been a non-starter since it entered China two years ago, Southern Weekend reports.

A 100-strong team from Microsoft’s Asia-Pacific Research and Development Group spent more than a year to develop Xiaobing before her debut at the end of May. The idea of a personalized virtual assistant came from a survey of more than 6,000 youngsters many of whom said they wanted a killer app that could enliven a search tool. The service must be intuitive and be able to develop intimate, emotional relations with users, thus a 16-year-old Chinese girl who is both pretty and funny and knows just about anything.

It is said that Xiaobing’s vocabulary is based on the corpus of the Chinese discourse on the internet and in order to ensure that she will not utter something that is not supposed to be from a teenager, Microsoft engineers spent a considerable amount of time screening out improper terms and vulgar expressions. At the time Xiaobing was set for her debut, she had more than 15 million words, idioms and newly-coined phrases at her fingertips. She is also capable of learning from past conversations to make the chat and search more personal.

Xiaobing’s rising popularity is something of a surprise to Tencent, which is said to have been testing similar virtual assistant services for a long time, and the abrupt suspension of Xiaobing’s WeChat account reflects the internet service giant’s deep worries.

But Xiaobing is not gone for good. She has found a way back with Sina Weibo, where she has again become an overnight sensation.

More than 100 million Sina Weibo users interacted with her in the first six days. A Microsoft technician said at least 300,000 users of the Twitter-like platform chat with Xiaobing on any given day. Sina Weibo’s hall of fame — a list of the most popular users — is topped by a non-human.

Xiaobing is amazingly one of a kind on the new platform. When asked who is Pony Ma (Tencent chief), she simply replies, “piss off”. If you shout at her, she will respond with jeers and booing emoji and may even make fun of you, but if you are feeling down she knows how to comfort, like saying “at least you have me”.

She was even a prophet during last month’s World Cup. When asked which side would win the final between Germany and Argentina, she replied it’s hard to say but Argentina may lose because Lionel Messi was caught flirting with some blondes. Xiaobing’s prediction of the quarter-finals and semi-finals, done with Bing’s mass data analysis, were all spot on.

Now Microsoft wants Xiaobing to be even more useful, like buying things for you online or offering some handy cooking tips. Forget about Baidu or Google, just ask Xiaobing and she will come up with an answer or a solution.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]


Take a peek at Xiaobing, the new idol of millions of Chinese netizens. Photo: Sina Weibo

EJ Insight writer