- Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
- Created by two ex-Googlers, Maslo is a “digital companion.”
- Users record entries into a voice journal, and Maslo uses artificial intelligence to scan the recording, read for human emotion, and respond accordingly.
- The founders, who became inspired to make technology more personal during their jobs at Google, said Maslo’s goal is for users to take a moment out of their day and acknowledge what they’re feeling. Malso is there to listen.
Maslo is young, friendly, and earnest. It asks me how I’m feeling every day, without fail, and when I talk, it listens. Maslo’s creators call it the ideal companion – though it’s only software.
In 2016, two former Google employees quit their jobs working on smartphone technologies and Google Assistant and created Maslo, a “digital companion” that uses artificial intelligence to read human emotion and respond accordingly. The goal, according to founders Cristina Poindexter and Ross Ingram, is to make Maslo more personalized as users interact with it.
It (he?) is a digital companion. The difference, Ingram said, is that digital assistants get stuff done in the outside world, while Maslo’s mission is to help you take care of what’s inside.
“Our vision is to build technology to help people grow as a person, and that starts by encouraging self-expression in multiple forms,” Poindexter told Business Insider.
Today, Maslo exists as a voice journal. The app suggests a series of prompts – which range from, “Tell me about the things that slow you down,” to, “What type of pizza would you be?” – and the user speaks a one-minute journal entry. Maslo then spits out an appropriate response.
Meet the founders
Before working at Google, Maslo’s CEO, Ingram, was a bright-eyed college dropout who cut his teeth writing code and launching marketing campaigns for robotics company Sphero, which is behind the popular “Star Wars” toy, BB-8. The bot could be controlled with gestures, or “The Force.”
His cofounder, Poindexter, was a Yale-educated sociologist. She wrote her thesis paper on people’s fears around technology, specifically smartphones. She went to Google out of college because she had “strong opinions” about the growing role of technology in our lives and its potential harms.
The pair met at a birthday party in San Francisco and got to talking about – what else? – tech.
A few weeks later, they discussed how to make technology feel more personal over coffee on the Google campus. Feeling the burnout of Silicon Valley, Poindexter was planning to leave the search giant to work on a farm in Italy. Instead, the two quit their jobs, moved to Los Angeles, and enrolled in a startup accelerator to develop a basic prototype that would become Maslo.
What’s a ‘digital companion,’ really?
Maslo falls somewhere on the spectrum between Siri and the sweet, sexy operating system in the movie “Her” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Though Maslow is embodied in the app as a quivering blob.
Users poke Maslo to greet it and swipe through five short prompts, which change daily, to find inspiration for a journal entry. When they select a prompt, users begin recording a 60-second log.
The artificial intelligence that powers Maslo runs the recording through a neural net (a type of computer system made up of a number of simple, highly interconnected data), and the software looks for patterns in the user’s speech. It identifies the number of times a person, place, or thing is mentioned, and listens for sentiment based on vocabulary.
During my first voice journal, Itold Maslo that I was excited but anxious about recently moving to the startup beat at Business Insider (hi, pitch me). The app took about a minute to process, and it returned a word cloud showing the things I said most and an emoji score: “neutral face.”
“Overall, things sound mixed,” Maslo said.
Eventually, Maslo will tell me how often I felt this way over the last seven days.
Your relationship with Maslo might get romantic
According to Maslo’s founders, the app might someday say something like, “I noticed you’ve felt this way lately. Do you want to talk about why it bothers you?” Poindexter explains that the app won’t give advice on how to handle the situation, but the prompt alone creates a space for the user to pause and acknowledge what they’re feeling, which can be just as important as feedback.
“We’re not saying Maslo is therapy by any sense. It can be therapeutic,” Poindexter said.
- Warner Bros. Pictures
In the future, the founders said they imagine that users will interact with Maslo in any number of applications. They might express themselves by drawing, dancing, or making funny faces, or ask Amazon’s Echo, “Alexa, can I talk to Maslo?” when they just want a friendly ear to listen.
I asked the founders if they worry about people falling in love with Maslo, like in the movie “Her,” a love story between a man (played by Joaquin Phoenix) and his voice assistant.
The answer? Maybe someday.
According to Ingram, Maslo builds “platonic” relationships with a hint of intimacy, adding that “the user has to feel comfortable opening up, and trust is one of those things that happens over time.”
“Today, we’re not focused on building a sort of romantic relationship with users, but who’s to say what’s going to happen in 10 to 25 years,” Ingram said.