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HONG KONG: Social media platform TikTok said on Thursday it is in the early stages of exploring a chatbot called “Tako” that can converse with users about short videos and help them discover content, and is conducting tests with select users in the Philippines.

OpenAI, backed by Microsoft Corp, last year launched chatbot ChatGPT, offering arguably the most natural interaction to date. That triggered a race to develop features based on game-changing generative artificial intelligence (AI), including TikTok rival Snap Inc whose “My AI” is powered by ChatGPT technology.

TikTok said Tako is designed to help users discover “entertaining and inspiring content” on the app.

Earlier on Thursday, an Israeli-based app intelligence firm Watchful Technologies said it had found Tako on some versions of the TikTok app on Apple Inc mobile devices.

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Screenshots and video Watchful shared with Reuters showed the chatbot featuring prominently on TikTok’s interface as a ghost-shaped icon, which users can tap while watching videos to have text-based conversations and get help finding content.

In April, U.S. media outlets reported that TikTok was experimenting with a generative AI tool to allow users to create avatars. China-based parent ByteDance is working on a large AI model, Chinese media reported, but it does not currently offer AI chatbot features on its Chinese equivalent of TikTok, Douyin.

Disclosure filed with the U.S. patent and trademark office last month showed TikTok had submitted a trademark application for “TikTok Tako” in categories including “computer software for the artificial production of human speech and text”.

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Asked about Tako, a TikTok spokesperson said the social media platform was always exploring new technology.

“In select markets, we’re testing new ways to power search and discovery on TikTok, and we look forward to learning from our community as we continue to create a safe place that entertains, inspires creativity, and drives culture,” the spokesperson said.

The company did not say why the Philippines was selected.

Video recommendations

Watchful researcher Daniel Buchuk said his team started to find references to Tako on some versions of the TikTok app earlier this month, including on a test version on an iOS device in the United States.

Watchful uses computer vision as well as data analysis to identify and emulate app changes. It monitors devices in different countries but was unable to establish in which markets TikTok was conducting its tests.

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Unlike ChatGPT, which is positioned as an all-purpose chatbot, Tako feels more like a navigation assistant with a focus on encouraging users to watch more videos, Buchuk said.

“So if you’re asking ‘When was King Charles’ coronation?’ Tako will tell you the answer, but then you’ll also see relevant TikTok videos,” he said.

Another demonstration by Watchful showed that when a user asks Tako a question, such as “How can we teach respect to children”, the chatbot replies by summarising tips from TikTok users while also recommending related videos.

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TikTok has set a disclaimer saying Tako is an experimental chatbot and that responses could be inaccurate. It said it will review conversations with Tako for safety purposes and warned users not to share private information with it.

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