A step too far? Photo: screenshot of logo from Yo's website
Show Hide image

Yo, the one-word viral app that somehow raised $1m (and already got hacked)

New app Yo takes our phobia of interaction to a new level – digital communication is now bored of words.

Why is everyone suddenly saying "yo"? Annoying catchphrases come in and out of style all the time but yo has managed to ride the wave of fickle fashions and become uniquely lodged in our brains. From 70s surfers to US presidents (how else would you address the British prime minister?) this relatively meaningless interjection has joined our everyday vocabulary.

This is why the latest of app crazes -  Yo - has been plastered over the media. Its functionalities are pretty basic: tap a contact’s name and you’ll send them a "Yo" message, along with a highly-annoying sound-bite shouting it out. You then can get a "Yo" in return. That's it. The recipient then deciphers why you’ve ‘Yo-ed’ them based on the circumstances in which you’ve sent it. The key here is anticipating what a friend would want to say.

Speaking to the New York Times, CEO and founder Or Arbel said:

People think it’s just an app that says "Yo". But it’s really not. We like to call it context-based messaging. You understand by the context what is being said.”

This isn’t actually stupid as it sounds. Squillo is a similar concept from Italy. It translates best as “missed call” but that’s a simplification – the quirky one-ring phone call is a way of talking to friends without talking: you hang up before the receiver has a chance to answer. Making uno squillo can have many meanings, ranging from heartfelt sentiments (letting a loved one know “I’m thinking of you”) to timely reminders (telling that friend who’s always late to get a move on). It doesn’t require a response and the meaning of the missed call is meant to be evident from context. 

Yo runs on a similar premise. Software developers are continuously on the look-out for ways to streamline conversation. The last decade has seen us transition from texts to tweets to ‘text-light’ applications like Snapchat. Yo is the natural extension of the trend to simplify speech.

There's a certain cynicism that comes with developments like this – are we really so scared of meaningful communication that we've resorted to sending bland one-word messages? Quite probably. All this technology will invariably lead to the stifling of creativity and the death of society and before you know it we'll be mindless automatons posting pre-programmed messages from app to app.

But until then think about the context in which Italian squilli were formed – free, exciting ways of communicating with close friends in a not-so-bygone age where mobile phones were a technological marvel and apps hadn’t even been invented.  No need for the added baggage of superfluous conversation, when a simple ring can convey the same message. Sending a squillo eliminated the need for small-talk with friends.

Yo is the internet-era equivalent. And it’s doing surprisingly well. For an app that just took eight hours to develop, in the three months it’s been on the market Yo has accrued a following of 50,000 users – who between them have sent over four million Yos.

Even more ridiculously, a group of investors has just poured a whole $1m into the idea, led by CEO of established image-sharing app Mobli, Moshe Hogeg. For such an annoying app, the level of investment in Yo is phenomenal. And it's whipped up a raging media frenzy over the last few days.

Of course, publicity isn't always a good thing. Earlier this morning reports came in that Yo had been hacked by a group of college students, prompting security fears. As well as taking users' phone numbers, the hackers appear to have replaced the 'Yo' shout with an even more irritating jingle:

The hacking reports are still unconfirmed, but that's likely to further fuel Yo's success, as the popularity of the app spreads virally. But tech experts are already awaiting the follow-up product: mood-sharing app Yo-Yo.

Touted to be the next-big-thing in digital communication, it's Yo with a twist – you’ll be able to tell your friends if you’re feeling up or down.

Show Hide image

Should we protect artificial intelligence from sexual harassment?

Should anything be done to stop people sending sexually explicit messages to their AI personal assistants?

If you ask Apple’s artificially intelligent personal assistant “Siri” whether it is a virgin, it will waste no time in shooting you down. “We were talking about you, not me,” it replies in the clear, sharp tones of Susan Bennett, the woman chosen to voice the genderless computer program.

If you ask Apple’s artificially intelligent personal assistant “Siri” whether it is a virgin, you are probably not very weird. But a recent article in Quartz has detailed the extent to which AI systems – particularly personal assistant bots – are sexually harassed. Ilya Eckstein, CEO of Robin Labs, claims 5 percent of interactions in their database are sexually explicit, and that “some people try very hard to establish a relationship with the bot.”

Engineers have been aware of this problem for a while. Microsoft’s Cortana has been programmed to fend off sexual harassment, with Deborah Harrison, an editorial writer for the program, claiming: “If you say things that are particularly asshole-ish to Cortana, she will get mad.” But what about the other “female” AI out there? Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, which is voiced by a woman, don’t currently seem to fend for themselves, so should we be fighting for them?

Probably not. Although developers should definitely program their “female” AI to shoot down anyone feeling frisky, as long as AI lacks sentience it’s hard to see these sexual interactions as a big enough problem to warrant further action. Yes, undoubtedly some lonely people have taken inspiration from Spike Jonze’s Her and fancy an AI girlfriend, and yes, a robust robot reply that teaches men to respect women can only be a good thing, but on the whole, most people that get saucy with Siri aren’t actually deranged perverts. They are just a boy, standing in front of a girl, asking them to say the world “willy”.

This is because despite what Quartz are claiming, the “sexual harassment” of bots is nothing new. It might, in fact, not even be gendered. Who among the MSN users of the Noughties didn’t ask the chatterbot SmarterChild whether he (most people, and media outlets, considered it a “he”) liked sex or had a penis? In fact, if you search Google Images for “Smarterchild”, pretty much all the screencapped chats are sexually explicit in some way.

Tumblr: The Dynamic Conversationalist

It’s hard to see someone sexting Siri as a problem, then, because it is part of a long tradition of humans being incredibly, incredibly dumb. Find me the man who doesn’t provoke every new chat bot on the market in the hopes of making them say something funny or rude, and you have found me a liar.

It is, of course, a big problem that AI personal assistants are so often female, as – in Laurie Penny’s words – it “says an uncomfortable amount about the way society understands both women and work.” But this, therefore, is the problem we should be tackling – instead of wasting our time debating the ethics and legality of coming on to Cortana.

I recently attended the UK launch of Amazon Echo, whose personal assistant is Alexa. Watching a room of old, balding, white, male journalists laugh heartily as the speaker on stage commanded Alexa to “Stop”, definitely troubled me. “If only I could get my…” began the speaker – as I desperately willed him not to say the word “wife” – “…children to do that,” he finished. Before we even begin to consider sexually explicit chatter, then, we should be confronting the underlying issue of gender bias in the AI industry.

Once we can set our personal assistants to have either male or female – or, even better, completely genderless – voices, we can get back to using them for what they were intended for. Asking them if they're virgins and then laughing at the response.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.