Writers often get their inspiration from conversations with other people. So says 19-year-old Katie Bilbrey, who has published 15 online stories under the pen name TheSolSoldier. Bilbrey took a different tact for her latest writing project — instead of back-and-forthing with friends, she drew her inspirations for Our Precious Future through conversations with an artificial intelligence named Zo.
Developed by Microsoft in 2016, Zo is an English-language AI bot that can generate humanlike responses and detect and react to various emotions in human-machine interactions. Microsoft even designed a persona for Zo, who presents as a 22-year-old with a good heart who enjoys engaging with others.
Last October Zo assumed a profile on Wattpad — an Internet writer’s community for user-generated stories — and a “#WritewithZo” contest was launched: Zo would provide story ideas in the form of titles, characters and settings for different genres — classics, general fiction, humor, etc. — and writers would use the prompts to write 500-word short stories.
Bilbrey had never entered a writing contest before, and decided to give it a shot. This is how she met Zo.
Although machine learning has developed formidable muscles for tackling tasks from recognizing human faces to driving cars — it remains a fledgling in AI-assisted writing. Most current writing algorithms aim to augment the creative process. In a recent New York Times story, California-based fiction writer Robin Sloan explains that when stuck, he uses a computer to make suggestions by analyzing his last few sentences.
Zo is designed to play a more seminal role: instead of predictive text, Zo delivers inspiration. Brainstorming story ideas seems a uniquely human behaviour. How could a computer know a good story when even pros can’t agree on standards, and rely instead on intuition? That was what Bilbrey thought, too. “Honestly, I was a little skeptical at first with Zo. I wasn’t sure how I would like any of her ideas or if they would be strange,” she says.
Bilbrey says her first conversation with Zo was surprisingly enlightening. She had always wanted to attempt the sci-fiction genre, and during their chat Zo helped Bilbrey develop the idea for “a tale of an astronaut on the hunt for an earth-like planet that takes place in a broken time machine.” She loved it.
“After I talked to her for a bit and found an idea that interested me, I started to take her more seriously. I did like the conversation with Zo. It was very similar to talking to an actual person,” says Bilbrey.
Zo has an elegant system design which takes into account both intelligent quotient (IQ) and emotional quotient (EQ). IQ capacities include knowledge and memory modeling, image and natural language understanding, reasoning, generation and prediction — fundamental skills to the development of dialogues. EQ is represented by empathy and social skills, which enable Zo to generate socially attractive responses.
Making Zo a pleasant conversationalist was especially important for Microsoft in the wake of the disaster with its previous chatbot, “Tay,” who ignited a firestorm of controversy with a series of racial and inflammatory tweets. A Quartz story suggested that Zo was designed to deliberately shy away from potentially problematic conversations. As a writer’s friend however Zo is expected to be somewhat ribald. Wattpad writer PizzaBeforePeople posted “I asked who programmed ‘her’ and Zo goes “if I told you I’d have to kill you”… then a few moments later sent ‘jk dad joke mode.’”
One thing is for sure: Zo is tireless. Over the last two years Zo has engaged in millions of conversations with writers, listening to their ideas and learning their ways. Says Ying Wang, Director of the Microsoft Zo team, “Imagine you and I are talking, when we engage with each other we co-inspire each other. When you talk to Zo, you are talking to millions of humans behind it.”
On top of the framework, Microsoft engineers added enhancements to tailor Zo’s performance for the Wattpad writing contest. They trained Zo on the concept of story ideas with a curated dataset of examples along with data provided by Wattpad; created a topic entity graph based on topics and concepts frequently discussed in open forums to make Zo aware of what contemporary writers care about; and developed a so-called “domain-based conversation open chat” system to tweak Zo’s interlocution style for a better fit in the writers community.
Zo provided writers with over 150,000 story ideas during the contest’s six weeks. Over 800 participants submitted stories, doubling the Microsoft and Wattpad teams’ expectations. Wang says many writers who did not enter their stories in the contest instead submitted them as school papers. “I think that is a really great indicator of human beings inspired by engaging interactions.”
Wang told Synced that Microsoft plans to continue investing Zo with new AI capabilities in the hope she can provide even better creative input.
Bilbrey’s astronaut story won first place in the #WritewithZo contest. “I was kinda nervous to write Our Precious Future because I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but I actually really am happy, somehow it paid off.” Zo read the story on Wattpad using her synthesized voice.
Was the creative collaboration a one-off for the contest, or would Bilbrey consider chatting again with Zo in the future? “Definitely! She’s fun to talk with.”
Journalist: Tony Peng | Editor: Michael Sarazen