Bored? Chat with a robot via SMS

Just when you think that SMS has exhausted all of its functions, a Singapore-based start-up is launching yet another SMS application--a money-generating "robot" called "Sally".

SINGAPORE--Sick of playing inane games on your mobile phone? Now, you can hold inane SMS conversations with a non-person instead.

SMS (short messaging service) has primarily been used as a means of communication among people. Now its use has been extended to just about anything you can think of--doing banking, obtaining examination results, paying phone bills, and even getting a divorce.

And just when you think that SMS has exhausted all of its functions, a Singapore-based start-up is launching yet another SMS application--a money-generating "robot" called "Sally".

The "chatbot", conceived by wireless and Internet communications company Buzzcity, is equipped with what the company terms "artificial intelligence" (A.I.), and is designed to understand your questions and hold an entertaining SMS conversation with you.

When contacted, Lai Kok Fung, CEO of BuzzCity, told ZDNet Asia that the chatbot service, which has a “high curiosity value”, targets “everybody with a mobile phone”.

“Younger folks will probably find it more interesting to play with Sally. However, from our initial responses, people of all ages find it cool to chat with Sally,” he added. Lai declined to comment on the targeted number of Sally users.

There are two major groups of SMS applications, Lai believes. One acts as a time saver (applications such as stock quotes and traffic alerts), while the other is essentially a time-killer (SMS games, for instance). The chatbot, Lai said, belongs to the latter group and spearheads the SMS entertainment space.

“When you have time to kill, [like traveling in buses or waiting at the doctor's office], you can chat with Sally to entertain and amuse yourself,” Lai said via email.

Lai said that the program will move beyond mere chatting to provide answers for specific requests. For example, Sally, or other chatbots can be programmed to possess domain knowledge about certain topics such as cosmetics and history.

“We have the ability to program other chatbots, with specific personalities [like] Elvis and [popular local sitcom character] Phua Chu Kang,” Lai said.

This service runs on the company’s Gamma platform--a delivery and payment collection platform for wireless content and service providers

Gamma enables providers to create, deploy, and collect payment for fee-based wireless service to consumers of all mobile operators. Content providers can "price" their services and receive shares of revenues according to the numbers of messages sent out to their subscribers.

To ensure conformity to local legislation and safeguard consumer's interest, BuzzCity has recently obtained a Service-Based Operator license from Singapore's Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) to operate Gamma and to collect prepaid message credits through the 1900 service.

Each reply from Sally costs S$0.05, which the user pays through Gamma by calling 1900-914-BUZZ. New users will be given S$1.00 worth of free Gamma credits. Depending on the user’s mobile plan, the mobile operator may impose additional charges on sent messages sent.

ZDNet Asia did a trial test with Sally. Below are excerpts of the SMS conversation:

ZDNet Asia: Sally, who is Bill Gates?
Sally: I remember faces better than names. Try searching the Web for it.
ZDNet Asia: Where can I get the best technology news?
Sally: I would suggest a search--I do not have the answer for it.
ZDNet Asia: You don’t seem to know anything at all. What do you know?
Sally: That’s only one person’s opinion. I tend to know a good deal. Tell me what subjects interest you.
ZDNet Asia: Is the price or design of a mobile phone more important to you?
Sally: Ask again later. Ask Alison if it is.
ZDNet Asia: Who’s Alison?
Sally: She is the robot created by Kris Drent.
ZDNet Asia: Who’s Kris Drent?
Sally: He is the botmaster of the Alison chat robot.
ZDNet Asia: Are you and Alison good friends?
Sally: Dr Wallace said I am good friends with Alison.
ZDNet Asia: Who’s Wallace?
Sally: He is a famous computer scientist.

Subsequent messages to Sally with the same questions yielded different responses.

The chatbot service will be officially launched August 27, 2001.