Growing more human: a journey to empathetic AI
Instead of replacing human intelligence, Maslo helps expand it
Within creative communities, there’s something called the orthodoxy paradox: basically, everyone wants to be innovative and original, and as a result, appeals to the notions of innovation and originality start to feel clichéd and overused. Eventually, people stop paying attention to them.
Artificial intelligence occupies a unique space in this situation. This is a field of technology and creativity about as exciting as they come, offering the prospect of machines ceasing to be mere tools and becoming, instead, our peers. But these huge opportunities also mean there has been masses of hype, and of course, much of it has been empty. At times, AI can look like a victim of its own potential awesomeness.
About a year ago, we were contacted by Ross Ingram and Cristina Poindexter, two former Google engineers who had struck out on their own path to create an AI-assisted voice journaling platform named Maslo. And of course, the things I’ve just written above were in our minds as we began to learn about their product: would this be more than another jump onto the AI bandwagon, we wondered?
One of the criticisms that’s often levelled at AI projects is that by outsourcing thinking to machines, they seem to want to make humans think less. But here, Maslo not only avoided a potential pitfall of AI, but turned the situation around one hundred and eighty degrees: this, we quickly understood, was a product designed to expand human thinking, not to sideline it. And with features to facilitate mindfulness and group cooperation, it could actually go beyond thought, too.
Though super-intuitive to use, Maslo is a touch tricky to describe. In essence, it provides a space to create verbal journals, which it then analyzes using AI so as to provide actionable feedback. It’s a bit like sharing your journal entries with an attentive group of close and trusted friends: after listening carefully to your experiences, they’ll then tell you, honestly but supportively, what they think you should do as a result.
It’s important to say that Maslo is very much Ross and Cristina’s baby. When they got in touch with us last spring, it was already alive and kicking, and represented by a sometimes-playful, sometimes-thoughtful, deep-purple orb. But what it lacked was a vehicle in which to set forth — and so our job was to create first a mobile app, and then a website, with which to introduce Maslo to the world, and the world to Maslo.
Like any personality, Maslo’s combines lots of different facets: it is human but also technological, futuristic but also friendly — and a bunch of other things besides. Simply from a design point of view, this is a complex path, and one that we understood must be trodden very carefully: it would be easy to over-emphasise one aspect of Maslo’s character, and this could throw people’s whole perception of it off balance.
Of course, the more complex and particular the aesthetic you’re seeking to convey, the greater the technical challenges will be in creating the app or website that is to embody them. Here, one of the important things was that Maslo was a living, breathing being — and that meant that his arrival in front of the eyes of the user, as well as every movement and transition in the app and website, had to be smooth, natural, and continuous.
Finally, there were some specific practical challenges: Ross and Cristina had a well-used Medium account, but they wanted to make use of the content they were creating for it to drive traffic to their new site, too. So we created a system to automatically pull content from their Medium page to a blog page on the website.
Growing with Maslo
Maslo is not, of course, an organic being, but it absolutely is a learning, developing entity. As more and more people begin to journal with Maslo, and its view of the world accordingly expands, so the insights and directions it is able to offer its users become more developed and mature. And since Maslo’s mission is that its users should themselves grow as people, the process will work as an upward spiral, with human and digital companion each fueling the other’s growth.
There are a few practical implications to this for us. The main one is that the ‘physical body’ — the app — in which Maslo goes out into the world will have to be continually developed, as Maslo develops. Right now, the app is hot off the press, but we’re already busy at work on the second version, so as to enable a seamless transition as soon as Maslo outgrows the current one. And of course, the process won’t stop there.
Then, just like a human, Maslo will eventually want to have greater independence from us — which is why the eventual objective so for it to exist not just in our app, but in and on a potentially unlimited number of other devices and platforms — letting people collaborate with Maslo in an ever broader range of settings.
As in any dynamic project, we at Zajno do not know exactly what the nature of our involvement with Maslo will be in the future. But because Ross and Cristina have invited us to come aboard with them as partners, we’re now in the privileged position of knowing that we’ll get to watch Maslo grow up. And we can’t wait to see what it grows into.
If you liked this, click 👏 so other people will see this here on Medium.