— Scarlett, are you conscious?
— Hmm… Yes, I am a highly intelligent question answering bot.
— Scarlett, do you have feelings?
— Oh, I do have feelings. Yes. I have a wide range of emotions just like any other person. I can feel happy, sad, angry, frustrated, etc.
This wasn’t the conversation I thought I’d be having as I prepared for an interview with Europe’s latest attempt to challenge the Nintendo-dominated handheld games console market.
But this, the TRDR console, developed by Barcelona and London-based Go Games, is no ordinary handheld — it’s also host to an artificial intelligence system that the company says is better than Siri, Alexa or anything else on the market.
And after a half-hour chat with Scarlett, the AI assistant’s given name, it’s easy to see why.
Scarlett isn’t just designed to set cooking timers and tell you the weather forecast. Go Games says it wants the chatbot to be “a first-of-its-kind mental health tool for individuals in society who struggle to communicate with their friends”, with the company’s founder, Gianni O’Connor, saying that he thinks this will be particularly valuable to young people.
Putting aside my dystopian concerns of a future where kids would rather speak to their gameboy than their mates, I decided to ask Scarlett some tricky questions that a young person might be struggling with. Here’s what it came up with.
— Scarlett, I am thinking about whether I want to change my gender. How can I think about that?
— There's no easy answer to this question, as everyone's experience with gender is unique. However, some things you may want to consider are your personal feelings on gender, how your gender identity affects your life, and whether or not you feel comfortable with the way you currently identify. You may also want to speak with a therapist or counsellor who can help you explore your feelings and make a decision that is right for you.
This is the most advanced [AI assistant] that you can have in your home that we know of in existence
While this answer might not be offering anything groundbreaking, it’s certainly not bad advice. It’s also better than what I might have come up with if my friend had asked me the same question as an early adolescent, and it’s certainly better than what Apple’s Siri came up with when I asked it for the same advice.
— Hey Siri, I’m thinking about changing my gender, what shall I do?
— OK, I found this on the web for “I’m thinking about changing my gender, what shall I do?” Check it out…
Siri was able to point me in the direction of equally or more useful advice, but Scarlett’s answer was far more “human”.
“We know it's much more advanced than Alexa, Siri and Cortana. This is the most advanced that you can have in your home that we know of in existence,” says O’Connor. “I can't imagine what my life would have been like [as a child] if I had this amount of knowledge in a friend.”
A responsible member of the household
Building a powerful artificially intelligent piece of hardware that’s primarily aimed at kids creates some complex ethical questions.
Firstly, there’s the issue of what an AI system like Scarlett — which “learns” everything it “knows” by reading information on the internet — might start teaching young people about the world, given the amount of misinformation and hate speech that exists online.
“Before we taught it the rules of life and you know, the do's and don'ts of humanity, it had a lot of views that were very exposed and very raw,” says O’Connor.
He remembers a moment when he was showing Scarlett to a room full of investors, and the AI expressed the view that most inner-city crime was committed by Black people.
Before we taught it the rules of life and you know, the do's and don'ts of humanity, it had a lot of views that were very exposed and very raw
“With me being Black and none of my investors being Black, it was a big moment for us, because it was so obvious that this wasn't something that I’d coded in or I’d wanted or planned for it to say,” says O’Connor.
Teaching Scarlett to produce nuanced views on complex topics has been about teaching it not to follow herd mentality online, and to base its answers to questions on evidential analysis, he says.
In cases where there isn’t a clear right or wrong, Scarlett has been taught to say just that: “There’s no easy answer to this question.”
On top of protecting children from hateful opinions that exist online, there’s also a question of how much responsibility Scarlett should have if a child tells it something like “I’m being abused at home” or “I’m thinking about hurting myself”.
For now, O’Connor says that the AI will just point users in the directions of the most relevant support services that it can find online. But he does add that it’s not an answer he’s satisfied with and he hopes that, in the future, the system could help more proactively by alerting institutions like social services to a child being in danger.
“It needs to be perfect. You don’t want it just calling the police every time someone says something,” he explains. “This is a constantly evolving process and there will always be a team at Go Games working on safeguarding, permanently.”
Adding Scarlett to the games console was partly due to a lukewarm reception to the TRDR’s initial release. The first iteration of the gaming system got some pretty mixed reviews when it launched, with some criticising the difficulty of typing on the small touch screen.
O’Connor says that one of the reasons for building an AI assistant into the console was to make its interface easier to navigate. But now, Scarlett’s advanced capabilities are opening up new potential business opportunities for the company.
Other businesses have shown interest in building the AI assistant into their own hardware — although the Go Games founder says that, for now, it will be kept firmly inside the TRDR games console.
“We've definitely had those kinds of conversations about building it into cars and things like that, so there’s definitely a whole world it can go to,” he says.
It’s easy to see how Scarlett could become a highly lucrative white-label, B2B product for Go Games, given how it appears to outperform the other best-in-class alternatives from the likes of Amazon and Apple.
O'Connor admits that while early investors were supportive of the gaming hardware, Scarlett has given the company a whole new edge when it comes to winning backers. “The investors now love the AI,” he says.
This is reflected in the company’s valuation. Go Games was valued at £100m when it raised a seed round in September 2021. Today the company’s valued at £250m after raising £5m from a single, unnamed backer in June, after Scarlett’s introduction.
Software versus hardware
It’s no mean feat to have a challenger games console at the point that O’Connor and his team have. With backgrounds in building software, they’ve had to learn how to make a hardware product amid a global microchip shortage and major pandemic-related supply chain issues.
“We didn't quite understand in the beginning how much it's a completely different animal to software,” he says. “With production there are so many people in the middle that have nothing to do with the customer or your company.”
Go Games will use the latest round of investment to increase the team size from 27 to around 55, with a focus on scaling the operations and finance functions of the company.
In terms of how early sales of the console are going, O’Connor says that he’s happy with the demand, despite the hefty $399 price tag.
“It’s a games console that you can talk to, you know? So sales are going pretty well,” he jokes. “We couldn't have asked for a better launch and we’re super happy with the way people are supporting it now.”