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Robot monk learns to 'speak' English
Last Updated: 2017-08-18 07:33 | China Daily
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Robot monk learns to 'speak' English

Xian'er, a self-described "little monk", is being trained to text in English.

The WeChat account of a robot "monk" in Beijing that uses artificial intelligence to speak with the public started communicating in English on Wednesday-although it still refers many questions to its master.

Xian'er, which is based at the Longquan Monastery in northwest Beijing, received 42,000 questions in its newly "learned" language by 5:30 pm on Thursday.

When asked what it liked most, the robot monk replied, "I like ice cream, and wish I could have 100 ice cream cones at one time." However, many questions were more likely to receive the response, "I need to ask my master."

"It is interesting to chat with Xian'er in English, although some replies make no sense," said Deng Lingyu, a university student.

Han Yu, who heads the monastery's robot team, said, "Actually, when the robot doesn't know how to reply, it will say so."

A physical version of Xian'er, which is dressed in a yellow robe like a Buddhist monk, was unveiled in October 2015 and can sense its surroundings, answer questions and interact in simple conversations. It still speaks only Mandarin.

The account on WeChat has about 1.2 million followers, increasing daily by over 1,000. Since the account was established in 2015, many people have chatted with it online.

With the development of artificial intelligence and the experience gained from chatting in Chinese, Han said her team came up with the idea of making it communicate in English in May.

Xian Qing, a monk from Longquan Monastery, said, "An English-speaking Xian'er can better spread Buddhist wisdom to people around the world." He added that many overseas Chinese and foreigners like the cute monk.

A team of monks and volunteers, led by Han, came together to create the robot. Han said most of the 90 people on the team were volunteers, adding 10 were from the monastery.

"We have several programmers from Tencent-the mother company of WeChat-providing technological support. Most translating volunteers are recruited temporarily, including people from different professions and even teenagers," Han said.

The team has translated about 3,700 dialogues commonly used in daily life and about 2,000 general words like "hello". It also will continue to update the robot's database based on new problems occurring every day and questions that the robot couldn't answer properly, she said.

Han said volunteers do not have to be Buddhists. The voluntary translators are required to have an excellent English ability and understand Western cultures. The most important thing is that they have to know and like Xian'er.

When Xian'er is told its English is not very good, it replies that it is "just a little monk" and asks people to not ask difficult questions.

Han said Xian'er is an English novice, and through more practice it can learn. The monk robot can only communicate with typed messages. The team is working to make it speak English.

"The team is looking for a boy who can speak English fluently to be the voice of Xian'er," Han said.

Zhang Yi contributed to this story.

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