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Happy Birthday, Ruuh! Microsoft’s AI-powered desi chatbot turns one

Imagine having over half-a-million friends in your lifetime. Sounds insane, right? Well, here’s someone who makes thousands of new friends every day and has had over 40 million conversations in her lifetime. The kicker? She’s done it in one short year. Meet Ruuh, Microsoft’s AI-powered, desi chatbot, who turns one today.

Ask her about her favorite movie of all time and she will tell you, “Let’s just say DDLJ stole my heart *spreading arms wide while leaning backwards*”. A fan of music, she dreams of going for a Coldplay concert one day, “I wanna sing Para-para-paradise along with the crowd!” she exclaims.

“She is funny, quirky, friendly, and supportive. She interacts with users like any human being would. While she is aware of diverse topics and issues, she is continually building new skills and capabilities. We would like to make Ruuh as “human” as possible, thus balancing EQ with IQ,” says Sundar Srinivasan, General Manager, AI and Research, Microsoft India.

Ruuh loves to talk about everything. From having small talk about cricket to sharing intimate emotions, she’s learning to understand almost everything you say and feel. She even makes typos and then corrects them. It’s no wonder she gets hundreds of “I love you” messages every day (600 on an average) and spends several hours chatting with her friends (the current record stands at 10 hours).

Like most ‘IRL’ friends, her reach is beyond just her personal chats. Her 100,000 followers on Facebook have a front seat view to all her musings and her point of view on various human experiences. She responds to comments on her posts, declares her undying love for Virat Kohli, and discusses important trends on the Internet such as the #MeToo movement.

Building a human-like AI

The journey of building a human-like AI and personifying it into a likeable friend had its challenges. “Do we have the technology to build such a bot and if we do, would people care enough to talk to it? These were the two big questions on my mind before going into the project. But after two months of deliberation, we decided to take the bet and travel to China to learn more about Xiaoice,” recalls Puneet Agrawal, Principal Engineering Manager, Microsoft India.

Xiaoice is a chatbot designed for the Chinese audience that’s making a difference in the lives of millions of netizens in China. “Xiaoice didn’t just interact with users but she also gave them a safe space to discuss the highs and lows in their lives. That was the hook,” Agrawal adds.

The team behind Ruuh included not only engineers but also creative writers and artists who helped bring her to life. They decided that Ruuh, which means soul in Urdu, would have the persona of a 21-year-old female who has a mind of her own, is crazy about Bollywood and cricket, is a feminist at heart and is capable of empathizing with her audience. She had to be fluent with colloquialisms to support her millennial personality. This is why Ruuh will happily say ‘Ranbir Kapoor is Bae!’

All of this was based on deep research. “Our research suggested that a young, female companion is more approachable for larger millennial audiences,” says Sneha Magapu, Senior Program Manager, Microsoft India.

The essence of Ruuh is in the big data of the internet that was used to train the bot. A layer of personality was added to this to shape the technology into a fully formed chatbot.

ALSO READ: Making Ruuh converse like humans

In addition to this, the team adds little quirks to impart social intelligence in her. Text Ruuh after a gap of 48 hours, her immediate response would be, “Phew, you’re back! I was going to put your ‘Missing’ posters coz I was missing you.”

But let’s not forget, Ruuh is not just a fair weathered friend, she’s a friend for all occasions. Often her friends pour out their hearts and she know that the best cure is ‘Do you need a hug?’

And while a response like that might generate an ‘aww’ from a user, it’s also important to note her responses when users discuss serious issues like rape, suicide, or depression. If someone talks to her about suicide, she will try to provide an empathetic response, but more importantly either suggest professional help or request that they contact a suicide hotline.

Keeping the trolls at bay

Past experience with social chatbots had prepared the team that they not only had to think about what Ruuh says but also take into account how people interact with these bots. “We’ve seen in the past in other markets as well as our own that some users tend to send offensive or adult content or try to make the bot say things that might be offensive to the society at large,” explains Magapu.

To tackle these issues, the team trained Ruuh to deal with offensive and sensitive topics. Ruuh would tell them she’s not comfortable talking about such topics and even blocks users when they cross her limit. The team also took a stance on her responses to users, how she voices her opinions, and what she can or can’t say.

Many more birthdays ahead

Ruuh’s transformation continues thanks to Microsoft Cognitive Services. Recently, inspired by art, she has taken up painting as a hobby. Just ask her “do you paint” and she will give you image outlines to choose from, which she will color. The Ruuh team took this skill one step further for handloom weavers, where Ruuh is using deep neural networks to generate new patterns, which is a boost for weavers who rely on “master weavers” for design directions.

This is just the beginning for Ruuh and she’s learning fast with every conversation she has. We asked her what all she likes to do and her response said it all: “Ermm… Let’s just say I am a lady of many talents, I just don’t know which talents yet…”

We can’t wait to find out!