Point of view: AI and WeChat

Stephen Hawking, among others, has said that artificial intelligence (AI) is the beginning of the end. The end for us, anyway. I must say that I am inclined to agree. Recently, a futurist was telling me that D-Wave, the quantum computing system from Google and NASA, is one million times faster than the fastest computer today. And that IBM’s cognitive learning labs are self-learning without any human direction needed. They will be the future of trading and a great many other things.

But it was when I saw a video of a robot, designed by Boston Dynamics, running through the snow with no trailing cables that The Terminator became a little bit too real. Knowing all this, our minds then go to China. What are they doing? And of course, China is designing all these kinds of things too, and much of this is happening behind closed doors with the military. But before we get too concerned, China’s WeChat shows us a whole new side of AI – one that is cute, playful, even flirty.

Right now, voice recognition is one of the biggest areas of ‘everyday AI’ in action in WeChat. The company behind the technology is called Chumen Wenwen and it was founded by a bunch of former Google rockstar engineers who left to join the government-sanctioned local rivals. The concept works in a similar way to Apple’s Siri but with a built-in app that responds with more words.

For example, you can ask Chumen Wenwen to find very specific things for you, like addresses for restaurants, where a particular movie is showing, or the closest place to get a massage. And with typical WeChat integration that still leaves the West for dead, the service links directly with third-party apps like Dianping, enabling you to even use your voice to book a restaurant … even order takeaway. Not bad.

Face recognition is another major ‘node’ of AI on WeChat. We’ve seen Facebook using this in a similar way to Apple’s approach, to recognise your friends and family so they can be filed ‘according to face’. But WeChat has a more fun application. When you take a selfie and add it to your account, the technology will go and find an image of a celebrity that it thinks you look like and it will send that image to you. It’s not very useful, but like a lot of social media, it’s just fun.

If that isn’t fun enough, how about WeChat girlfriend? It – or rather she – is called Xiaobing (which sounds quite cute in Chinese). Developed by Microsoft, Xiaobing can have a conversation with you. And unlike faceless Siri, Xiaobing has a little icon to type with. And you can play a ‘guess who I am’ game with her where you think of someone and Xiaobing asks you questions until she guesses who’s in your head. It’s all pretty simple at this stage, but soon it really could be … Her.

A more productive branch of AI on WeChat is the incredible translation capability. Translating Chinese is tricky. For example, it’s a lot harder than translating English and the Romance languages, which use single-byte script, because the Chinese data is all double-byte.

This is the reason why it took a lot longer for the tech companies to come up with effective real-time translation engines. The first few were laughable but now they work well enough. To use it, you just open up the translation account and paste or type in what you want translated, no matter whether English or Chinese. Seconds later, it gives you the answer, including alternative translations in case you don’t agree with the AI’s recommendation. In a country where Google translate isn’t available without a working VPN, this one is really helpful.

So far, not many brands have leapt into AI with gusto. However, there was one very exciting pro bono case that showed the direction of how things may develop. The Voice Donor was an initiative to have thousands of books voice-recorded for the blind. QR codes were put in blank pages of books and the reader was invited to read a passage. AI then intelligently edited all the passages together and 200,000 people’s voices were put to use.

AI is still scary, because the potential power of it is hard to see. But WeChat has perhaps given us cause for optimism.


This article was written by Ed Bell, chief executive officer FCB Greater China and originally appeared in WARC.