TikTok is testing an in-app AI chatbot called ‘Tako’

AI chatbots, like ChatGPT, are all the rage, so it’s no surprise to learn that TikTok is now testing its own AI chatbot, as well. Called “Tako,” the bot is in limited testing in select markets, where it will appear on the right-hand side of the TikTok interface, above the user’s profile and other buttons for likes, comments and bookmarks. When tapped, users can ask Tako various questions about the video using natural language queries or discover new content by asking for recommendations.

For instance, when watching a video of King Charles’ coronation, Tako might suggest that users ask “What is the significance of King Charles III’s coronation?”

Or, if users were looking for ideas of something to watch, they could ask Tako to suggest some videos on a particular topic — like funny pet videos. The bot would respond with a list of results that include the video’s name, author and subject, as well as links to suggested videos. From here, you could click on a video’s thumbnail to be directed to the content.

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot by Watchful.ai

The bot was discovered being publicly tested by app intelligence firm Watchful.ai, and TikTok confirmed the tests are now live.

“Being at the forefront of innovation is core to building the TikTok experience, and we’re always exploring new technologies that add value to our community,” a TikTok spokesman told TechCrunch. “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.”

However, though Watchful.ai says it found the AI chatbot in tests on iOS devices in the U.S., TikTok says the current version of the bot is not currently public in the U.S., but it is being tested in other global markets, including an early limited test in the Philippines.

We also understand the bot will not appear on minors’ accounts.

Behind the scenes, TikTok is leveraging an unknown third-party AI provider that TikTok has customized for its needs. That modification does not include the use of any in-house AI technologies from TikTok or parent company ByteDance.

Upon first launch, TikTok advises users in a pop-up message that Tako is still considered “experimental” and its feedback “may not be true or accurate” — a disclaimer that applies to all modern AI chatbots, including OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s AI, among others. TikTok also stresses that the chatbot should not be relied on for medical, legal or financial advice. (We understand the wording in the image below may reflect an earlier version of the bot rather than the current tests.)

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot by Watchful.ai

The disclosure also notes that all Tako conversations will be reviewed for safety purposes and, vaguely, to “enhance your experience.” This is one of the complications that come with using modern AI chatbots, unfortunately. Because the technologies are so new, companies are opting to log customer interactions and review them to help their bots improve. But from a privacy standpoint, that means the AI conversations are not being deleted after chats end, which poses potential risks.

Some companies have worked around this consumer privacy concern by allowing users to delete their chats manually, as Snap has done with its My AI chatbot companion in the Snapchat app. TikTok is taking a similar approach with Tako, as it also allows users to delete their chats.

It’s unclear if the AI chatbot is logging data associated with the user’s name or other personal information, though. The long-term data retention policies or privacy aspects of the chatbot also couldn’t be determined at this time.

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot by Watchful.ai

The security risks of AI chatbots have led some companies to ban such bots at work, including Apple, which has gone so far as to restrict employees from using tools like OpenAI’s ChatGPT or Microsoft-owned GitHub’s Copilot over concerns about confidential data being leaked. Others who have recently enacted similar bans include banks like Bank of America, Citi, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan, as well as Walmart, Samsung and telecom giant Verizon.

Why consumers would even want an AI chatbot in TikTok is another matter.

While most companies are experimenting with AI in some way, shape or form, TikTok believes the chatbot could do more than just answer questions about a video — it could also become a different way for users to surface content in the app, beyond typing into a search box.

This could become a threat to Google if TikTok’s tests were successful and the chatbot publicly rolled out, given that Google has already noted how Gen Z are turning to TikTok and Instagram as the first place they go to search on certain subjects. Soon, Google will begin┬árolling out a conversational experience in search, but if TikTok had its own in-app AI chatbot, that could encourage younger users to bypass Google altogether.

Update, 5/25/23, 9 AM ET: At the time of publication, TikTok shared additional information about Tako on its Twitter account. We’ve updated with additional details, where relevant.