Culture

Insomniacs, this chatbot will keep you company

Sleepless in cyberspace? This chatbot from mattress startup Casper is always up for some pillow talk.

Talk to me insomnobot.

Josh Miller/CNET

It's 3 a.m. and you can't sleep. Insomnobot-3000 feels your pain.

New York-based mattress startup Casper rolled out the chatbot Wednesday to keep you company while the world snoozes away. Hopefully it's not your mattress that's keeping you up.

"We wanted to provide instant companionship when it feels like the rest of the world is already asleep," said Lindsay Kaplan, head of communications for Casper.

Text the chatbot and it responds immediately. It's "extra chatty" between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., which means it doesn't want much to do with you outside that time window (sorry, people on the night shift).

Indeed, when I tried chatting it up at 11:20 a.m. PT Wednesday, it politely but firmly rejected my advances.

Screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

"At work now can't talk now," it told me. "How's tonight?" I might just take it up on its offer to test claims that it can talk about almost anything.

A chatbot is software that responds to your messages using natural language and relies on artificial intelligence to determine what you mean and deliver a tailored reply. As we head toward computer-based systems that can learn and adapt for themselves, chatbots are becoming ever more common.

Earlier this year, CNET's Brian Cooley called chatbots, "right after virtual reality, the hottest trending big-platform topic in technology."

Insomnobot, which is free to use, went through extensive user testing, with subjects interacting with it at different times of day to help creators get a handle on common topics of insomniac chatter (work stress, pre-bedtime TV watching, weekend plans).

"We wanted the bot to sound as human as possible so it feels like you're talking to a friend," Kaplan said. "A beta group texted the number without knowing it was a bot -- the true test of authenticity. When the group couldn't figure it out, we knew we were ready to launch."

The 10-person development team even spent two weeks debating whether insomnobot should respond with proper grammar. In a decision copy editors everywhere will applaud, it decided grammar matters, even in the middle of the night.

For now, insomnobot delivers ad-free chats. Casper, a direct-to-consumer company, declined to talk monetization opportunities when speaking with publication Inc., but don't be too surprised if mattress promotions eventually make their way into your late-night tete-a-tetes with the bot.

Numerous studies say staring at screens can affect your slumber, but if you ignore that data like so many people in our gadget-obsessed world seem to, insomnobot is all electronic ears.

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