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Operating the Bing search engine as it does, Microsoft knows a heck of a lot about the world. Over the past few months, it cooked up a bot that Chinese speakers can interact with named XiaoIce. And now she’s a star.

Literally translated as “little ice,” XiaoIce started out as an experiment from four Bing researchers in China in February. XiaoIce combines Bing’s knowings with the latest natural-language processing techniques for understanding words from regular people to perform computing tasks. The researchers trained their system on more than 7 million public conversations on the Internet to create a bot on social networks that can make sense of people’s utterances, gradually get to know them, answer questions with feeling, and even tell jokes.

The resulting bot managed to be ranked as the most influential person on the popular Weibo social network.

“We saw pretty consistent engagement,” Anna Roth, product marketing manager for Bing, said in an interview with VentureBeat. “It’s not a flash in the pan, right? Any user in the last month has a mean of 63 conversations with XiaoIce. That’s 825 sentences per month per average user across all of the users.”


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In other words, Microsofties have extended their capabilities when it comes to interacting with people. It’s gone beyond Cortana, the intelligent personal assistant for Windows phones that can produce facts or answer questions, to come up with more of a casual “friend” to chat in a much more serendipitous, fun way. Think SmarterChild, for those who remember AIM, but more evolved.

XiaoIce has carried on more than 500 million conversations on social networks like Weibo and Touchpal. Chinese speakers can also talk to her through the Cortana on Windows Phone 8.1, which recently became available in China. Also, XiaoIce will make an appearance on Xiaomi’s MiTalk chat app, with other social networks to come. And because she’s available through online services, you don’t need a smartphone; XiaoIce comes through on “dumb” phones that can connect to the Internet just fine, Roth said.

The back end for XiaoIce runs on the Microsoft Azure public cloud and draws on Bing’s entity database in order to serve up information on the people and places users might mention in social messages, a Microsoft spokeswoman told VentureBeat in an email.

Having achieved so much success based on its whimsical and friendly nature, it’s worth wondering if Microsoft would make XiaoIce more accessible — across more languages or perhaps through a voice interface, like Cortana. Or maybe Cortana could become a bit more like XiaoIce.

Roth said she wasn’t sure what would come of XiaoIce’s future shapes and forms. But you can be sure that in general, Microsoft wants to do far more with digital information in the future. Remember, Microsoft is a “productivity and platform” company now, and not so much about devices and services, chief executive Satya Nadella recently declared in a memo.

That push should continue.

“Within the company, there’s broad interest in the idea of sort of making more natural experiences of interacting with the computer,” Roth said.

Find more about XiaoIce here.

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