AI in Japan: Boy bot’s big honor

An AI-powered bot – modeled after a smart, but cute 7-year-old boy – is serving one Japanese community so well, its tech-focused municipal government has just granted him residency status. Shibuya Mirai was developed by Microsoft and the Shibuya Ward of central Tokyo to help its 224,000-strong population access local services and to provide local officials with better insights into public opinion.

His creation is part of an ambitious 20-year plan for this up-and-coming neighborhood, which boasts a young, fashion-conscious demographic and is increasingly home to new tech and media companies.

People seek out Shibuya Mirai every day via the LINE text messaging app. He responds to conversations in naturally flowing Japanese texts in real time and generates images using artificial intelligence developed by Microsoft Research. This technology aims to make emotional connections with users while incorporating data and information from the ward.

Users have quickly got to know the virtual first grader. He’s regarded as slightly mature for his age and enjoys texting with people about Shibuya. He is constantly learning from these interactions and from playing the word game, Shiritori. His hobbies are listed as photography and observing humans – and he uses both to create images that synthesize the photos of residents with the area’s famous Moyai statue.

Shibuya Mirai has been such a success, local Mayor Ken Hasebe conferred residency on him at a recent ceremony – the first time a bot has received such an honor in Japan. Microsoft is planning to develop more AI characters for the municipality.

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