Can Alexa do this? Meet the personal assistant that talks in GIFs

Making machines seem alive is arguably more about good puppetry than good programming. A precise head tilt here, or a shrug there, can go a long way to giving a collection of electronics the illusion of autonomous thought. Now, a designer has shown that you can do more with a handful of GIFs than the latest machine learning.

Abhishek Singh’s Peeqo is a completely open-source desktop AI assistant. Whereas Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Home have been making tracks in integrating AI assistants into the home, capable of conversations and with a penchant for expensive dollhouses, Singh’s creation focuses on communicating visually by displaying GIFs. 

The head-sized robot is comprised of a phone-sized screen, which functions both as Peeqo’s face and its display panel. This is attached to a textile body, which can flex and contort, giving a degree of physicality to the machine’s emotions. This puppetry works well, but the icing on the cake is how Peeqo can respond to what a user is saying, and respond with an appropriate GIF.

“I tried to give him a personality, so at times his response can be rather spunky,” explains Singh in the video. Spunky indeed. Regardless of the specifics in Peeqo’s programming, the act of pulling on GIFs to communicate inevitably gives the small robot a sense of character – defined to a large degree by the collective personality of a Tumblr-ready site such as Giphytumblr_ojisoltj121qav3uso4_r1_540.gif

Although it backfired massively, Microsoft’s Tay was supposed to be a convincing AI bot that mimicked the language used by a 19-year-old American girl. A lack of sophisticated artificial intelligence can be masked by the impression of intelligence, and there’s often no better way to do this than dropping in a few zeitgeisty phrases and patterns of speech. GIF slang is a micro-language of its own, and Peeqo is cleverly able to seem smart by tapping into the visual vernacular of Tumblr, Slack and Facebook Messenger.

First spotted by Prosthetic Knowledge, Singh’s Peeqo looks like a really interesting starting point for a GIF-ready robot. Its creator has even uploaded instructions for making your own, via an Imgur post. I’ve also found out that Singh is the brain behind this brilliant VR dragon ride, which makes him my favourite designer right now.

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