In Japan, the owners of small neighborhood bars are usually referred to as “Mama-san,” since they generally cultivate an image as a kind and comforting presence. A good Mama-san is always ready to open her heart and lend an ear to her customers, and many earn a loyal group of regulars who come not just to quench their thirst, but to unpack their troubles.
However, with the continuing coronavirus pandemic, many bars in Japan are temporarily closed to help prevent infection vectors. One Mama-san who’s still ready to listen, though, is Yoshiko, who also happens to be an AI.
There’s also a human Yoshiko, shown in the video above. She runs a bar in Miyazaki Prefecture’s Nishitachi, one of Japan’s foremost bar districts, and the AI. was developed based on 50 hours of interviews with her, during which the designers took careful note of how she listens and responds to someone laying out what’s troubling them.
The AI Yoshiko’s virtual bar, which was created in conjunction with suit maker Yofuku no Aoyama, is free-to-use, with no registration required. Once you’ve clicked to enter the bar, Yoshiko will greet you and ask what’s on your mind, giving you a lengthy list of common concerns, which you can then narrow down to more specific stress sources.
As a virtual bar (which can be found here – click on よしこに相談 to get started), it’s a BYOB deal, so as we cracked open a can of Asahi Super Dry from the fridge, we selected the “daily life” category, followed by “coronavirus” and “I’m stressed out because I can’t see my friends and family.” Yoshiko then offered us the following words:
“Times like these, when you can’t get together with other people, really are stressful, aren’t they?…I think creating a space where you can talk with someone you trust, whether it’s through video chat or taking other precautions against infection, is the best thing to do. And if you’re not the type who ordinarily chats with your parents very often, maybe this is a good opportunity to give them a call.
This is really the sort of time when it’s important to talk to one another. Talking with someone, anyone, helps get rid of the stifling feeling a lot of people are experiencing, just like how we’re talking with each other about the things that have been weighing us down.”
Of course, there’s plenty of non-corona-related stuff to feel stressed out about in life, and the list of things Yoshiko is ready to talk about also includes friction with your boss, family, or romantic partner, loss of motivation at work, trouble sleeping, or the difficulties of moving to a new apartment, among many, many more.
There’s even a text box in which you can type in your own specific problems, although at the moment that has a chance of AI Yoshiko politely saying she doesn’t have any specific advice. However, as the pro she is, the AI asks that you come back and ask her again at a later date, since right now she’s still in her Yoshiko Version 1 form, and the more experience she gets talking to people, the more topics she’ll be able to reply to, showing that communication really is a two-way street.