Bus Uncle creator, Abhilash Murthy, tells Asian Buses writer Farezza Hanum Rashid how he humanised a chatbot with humour.
Waiting for the bus in Singapore is not dull when you have a sarcastic but friendly “uncle” who not only instantly tells you when your bus will arrive, but tells you jokes via text messages while you wait.
Inquiring about the earliest bus for the Johor Bahru Checkpoint bus stop, Bus Uncle told me: "Bus 950 arriving now... then 170X coming in 7 mins... The rest give you more time to play game."
Feeling bored while you wait? "Why does Mr. Lee Hsien Loong go walking in the evening and not in the morning? Hello why you so blur he is the PM not AM,” Bus Uncle jokes in Singlish, and he has more up his virtual sleeves.
Bus Uncle is a Facebook Messenger chatbot that connects to a web server to handle states of a conversation. The web server is connected to the Singapore Land Transport Authority's public bus information datasets (or API). He is also connected to an artificially intelligent natural language processing engine called Wit.ai, so that he can learn from speaking to his users.
In 2016, the creator, 25-year-old Abhilash Murthy, was waiting at a bus stop when he simply thought: "I wish I could ask someone how long I needed to wait for the next bus". He studied in Information Systems Management at the Singapore Management University from 2010 to 2014. He has since worked as a web developer, data analyst, and software engineer in an investment bank called UBS and a start-up called TradeGecko.
The character was inspired by Abhilash's experiences with bus captains in Singapore. "Some are grumpy and shout at passengers who are very slow or don't move to the back. Most of them however are very friendly and helpful. All these characteristics culminated into Bus Uncle's personality," Abhilash said.
Currently covering all public routes in Singapore, Abhilash said he would gladly take up opportunities to develop it outside of Singapore.
"My users love Bus Uncle - they enjoy his sarcasm, wittiness, and humour, while at the same time getting valuable information to plan their day like bus arrival timings and public transport directions and itineraries."
Bus Uncle also responds to comments on his Facebook Page when his "passengers" had problems with the chatbot or his services. His answers are, of course, not without his funny mannerisms. Many also commended on Bus Uncle's accuracy as being better than most apps and even better that it is a Facebook Messenger chatbot, which means that they did not need to download more apps into their smart phones.