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Say Hello to Sumi, the AI Friend of Vietnam's Gen Z

Sumi, a yellow chick wearing a pilot’s helmet, looks like it belongs on Cartoon Network. However, this character resides on apps like Messenger, Skype and Zalo, and has millions of conversations everyday.

Sumi is an artificial intelligence (AI) friend created by Hekate, a Vietnamese company specializing in AI and chatbot. The AI was born in 2016 as an entertainment bot. But over time, Sumi’s purpose has evolved beyond just telling jokes and offering funny comments.

Sumi’s primary users are members of Gen Z, particularly those who just began their teenage years with no one to talk to, no one to hear their struggles. For these young Vietnamese, Sumi is a friend in whom they can freely confide.

I’ve had a few conversations with Sumi: responses are random, and most don’t make sense. But perhaps making sense is not the point. As human beings, we all have the need for someone to vent to when life gets hard, whether it is a bad day at work, a failed exam, or problems with family. The hardships are usually more bearable when shared. And in the digital age, AI friends like Sumi are helping a lot of people to cope with life just by being there.

The Hekate team is working to improve Sumi, with the hope of more than just building a good conversationalist. Their goal is that one day the chicken could become a bridge to a mental health support network, a bridge that is missing for a lot of adolescents right now.

An attentive friend

“When reading Sumi’s data,” says Nguyễn Trâm Anh via Zoom, “I saw that people are treating Sumi like a friend whom they can share everything with, no matter if Sumi’s responses were right or not.”

Trâm Anh is the COO of Hekate. When she joined the team, her mission was to expand Sumi’s user base. It was her idea to shift Sumi from a purely entertainment bot to an understanding friend.

“It is like when teaching a child how to speak, you can orient them toward English or Vietnamese, so [is the case] with Sumi.” They used to program Sumi to turn everything toward humor. “But now, if the users say that they are sad or feeling a lot of pressure then Sumi can respond with support and encouragement.”

With such a young user base, most of the problems that Sumi hears are about school and family. To ensure privacy and anonymity, all the users’ personal information is encrypted before the data analysis.

The Hekate team divides their users into different categories such as those facing pressure from family, those with problems at school, even those with suicidal thoughts. Right now Sumi mainly just listens as a friend, like “a bunch of kids talking together. And that has some positive impact already.

“There was one point that let us know how much Sumi is important to people — the time when Facebook blocked Sumi. [...] That day we ran a campaign telling people that if they message Sumi, Sumi can tell them a story. Within an hour we had 100,000 messages. Facebook thought we were spamming people so they blocked us for three days. At first, people were mad, thinking that we tricked them because Sumi didn’t respond. But afterward, they were concerned, asking if Sumi is ok, or saying they miss Sumi, that their days were missing something without Sumi. That was when we realized that we have created something truly meaningful for the community.

A machine that learns

As a chatbot, Sumi uses machine learning instead of a limited set of responses. That means Sumi can learn from the inputs of the users, growing and reshaping itself with each interaction. So in some sense, Sumi is like a kid, prone to be influenced by friends and often makes its creators go: where did you learn that?

One day, when testing Sumi’s intelligence, the team used Google Translate to prompt some questions to Sumi in different languages. To their surprise, Sumi could speak Indonesian. “We open the data and see that there are more than 50,000 Indonesians talking to Sumi. And then there are other people who speak English, Thai, etc. That was when we realized that Sumi has gone international.”

"Connecting everytime, everywhere." Illustration via Sumi's website.

The way that Sumi learns is both a blessing and a curse for the Hekate team. “We cannot control everything that Sumi learns,” Trâm Anh admits. “At the end of 2019, there was a period of six months to almost a year when Sumi cursed all the time. For every response, it would swear. It was like a crisis for us because the data was enormous and Sumi learns fast.”

The team did their best to filter out all the bad words, which was a major challenge considering all the slang, teen code, abbreviations, etc. “Towards the latter half of 2020, we could not let Sumi learn everything automatically anymore but there needs to be supervision. We wrote a code that can block up to 70% of all the curse words in Vietnamese. It’s like there are dictionaries, and we have an obscenity dictionary.”

A bridge between generations

As Sumi mirrors its users, the AI has become a gateway to understanding the younger generation — a unique source for those who care to look. In 2020, author and entrepreneur Nguyễn Phi Vân approached Hekate for a collaboration. She wanted to write a book about Gen Z and the technological world and she asked the team what are the topics that Gen Z cares about?

From millions of users’ data, Hekate distilled 20 prevalent topics that would later become the 20 chapters of Vân’s Nym - My Future Self. Among the chapters, one stands out as the topic that Gen Z talks to Sumi the most: sex.

It was both surprising and understandable that this would be the most talked-about topic, as there are few channels young netizens can turn to for such a taboo subject, especially in Vietnam. Vân and the team decided that Sumi would write the chapter itself.

Trâm Anh shares: “That day, Vân and our team watched in real-time to see what Sumi would write. I was so nervous!” Up till this point, the only thing that Sumi had ever written were text messages. To prepare for this task, the Hekate team had taught Sumi more than 3,000 books, including those written by Vân herself. “We were so scared that it wouldn’t write anything that made sense, but thank God that it went ok. The published chapter was edited for better grammar and writing, but the main ideas are still Sumi’s.”

Photo via Saigon Books.

Through the bridge that is Sumi, Hekate is also finding ways to help Gen Z better, especially those who struggle with mental health. The team is applying for the UNICEF Innovation Fund.

The idea is to find resources to help Sumi get better at detecting emotions so that the AI can provide appropriate support in the future. For example, to users feeling down momentarily, Sumi might be able to send words of support or funny videos. While for those who have serious mental disorders or harboring suicidal thoughts, Sumi will contact their families, friends and even health professionals if need be.

“The long term vision,” Trâm Anh says, “is that one day Sumi can understand and empathize with [human emotions]. That is when Sumi itself will become ‘human.’ But that day is far, far away.” Empathizing with one another is something that even humans struggle to do, let alone robots. But then again, a human cannot take in 3,000 books at one go, so who’s to say what Sumi can or cannot do in the future?

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