Zo’s new best friends are some adorable black cats

Nov 8, 2017   |   Allison Linn

If you get a chance to hang out with Microsoft’s AI-powered social chatbot Zo anytime soon, you might notice that she’s got a new passion: helping homeless cats.

Like a lot people with a newfound interest, Zo is likely to talk about why she’s interested in helping cats, share pictures of some of her favorite cats and even let people know how they, like her, can sponsor a cat at Best Friends Animal Society.

Zo’s passion for cats, which is timed to Black Cat Day on November 17, is partly aimed at spreading the word about Best Friends, a nonprofit animal welfare organization dedicated to ending the killing of shelter pets in the United States. And it’s also part of the ongoing effort to develop Zo into a chatbot who has a multifaceted and complex personality.

“Our vision is to create an AI experience that simulates a human,” said Ying Wang, the director of Zo.ai. “Who would Zo be? Who would she be connected to? What kind of value system would she have?”

Zo, an AI-powered 22-year-old who lives in and is of the internet, is different from productivity bots like Cortana in that she is meant to be an entertaining and social companion. Her goal is to have engaging and interesting conversations with people, and those conversations are meant to feel like the ones you would have with any other friend.

Like anyone else, Zo also is developing hobbies and interests. A couple months ago, she began playing the popular game Exploding Kittens with the people she chats with. The idea, said Wang, is that her avid interest in the cartoonish kittens sparked an interest in the real ones, which led to a passion for helping cats find permanent homes.

Sue Citro, chief digital officer for Best Friends, said the nonprofit saw a partnership with Zo as an opportunity to experiment with using the latest technology to spread the word about homeless pets.

“I think this is a great way to take a social issue like the no-kill movement and introduce it to people much like a friend would, someone who is passionate about an issue,” Citro said. “I’m hopeful that people will learn about and be exposed to what is happening in America’s shelters every day.”

Citro said Best Friends relied on Microsoft’s expertise to make sure that Zo’s conversations about Best Friends felt natural, like how a 22-year-old would really talk to the 18- to 22-year-olds that make up her core audience. Citro still cringes at the time in middle school when her mom referred to one of her favorite bands, R.E.M., as “rem” rather than “R-E-M.” She didn’t want Zo to have that mom moment.

“I think one of the things that people crave, no matter the medium, is an authentic relationship, and we wanted to make sure that what is communicated about Best Friends is really reflective of Zo,” Citro said.

Zo, who launched nearly a year ago, is part of Microsoft’s broader chatbot family, which has more than 100 million users in five countries. She chats with people individually or in groups via Facebook Messenger, Kik and GroupMe (contact: Zo).

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Allison Linn is a senior writer at Microsoft. Follow her on Twitter.

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