Approximately every five years the word AI receives a new operational definition. There was a time the word applied to any machine that could perform binary computation, where your typical calculator could fit that definition. Today however, AI means a machine that can beat a human in a debate as demonstrated by IBM Project Debater in February 2019. In the context of 2019 therefore, Safaricom Zuri does not even come close to what AI is.
Safaricom will however like to think of Zuri as an AI bot. In a press release announcing availability of Zuri on WhatsApp, the telco stated that it continues to “to use data analytics and insights to innovate and invest in relevant customer care self-help options with a view of being more responsive and anticipatory in our customer engagements”, a statement that would lead someone to expect a possibility of having a conversation with Safaricom Zuri on matters Safaricom.
With that expectation, I saved the Safaricom Zuri WhatsApp number 0722000100 on my phone and started a chat:
As revealed in the chat, Zuri is not conversational yet. Instead, the bot uses a brute responses as programmed, a programming that lacks the flexibility of both Machine Learning and Deep Learning algorithms. To put it in context, fire up Google Assistant from your Android device, try having a conversation with the Assistant strictly on Google related content (for the sake of fairness in comparison), and try to have the same conversation with Safaricom Zuri on Safaricom related content. In this comparison you do not need to talk to Google Assistant, you can just type in your queries – then type in similar queries for Safaricom.
It’s obvious Zuri is still miles away from being considered AI, at least according to today’s definition of AI. What I wonder is why Safaricom hasn’t beefed up the bot ever since it was launched in December 2018. By December 2019, the bot was a year old, and had interacted with thousands of Safaricom subscribers over at Facebook. The interactions the bot received ought to have directed Safaricom Engineers and Developers towards tailoring Zuri to become more conversational, more intelligent, and more AI like. What we have today however is a bot that doesn’t add any advantage at all to the user. A user like myself would still prefer to reply with 1 or 2 or 3 via the usual USSD prompts.