Singaporean

The Brains Behind 'Bus Uncle', The Kopi-Offering Chatbot Who Keeps Us Entertained At Bus Stops

Maybe you’re one of the more financially well-off people in Singapore, driving to work everyday in your red Ferrari.

But for the rest of Singapore, our daily commutes involve queueing at the MRT platforms or bus stops. In the early mornings when we’re half asleep and still dreaming of our beds, this is not a particularly fun experience.

And so this Singaporean PR decided to take things into his own hands, and put them into into Bus Uncle‘s.

If you’ve yet to hear about the latest Bus Uncle messenger app that is taking social media by storm, then it’s time you load up your Facebook.

Image Credit: Facebook sgbusuncle
Image Credit: Facebook sgbusuncle

…and send him a message.

That’s exactly what I did.

Unfortunately, it was 11:53pm then and so I was promptly hit with a pure dose of Bus Uncle‘s snarky humour when he asked me if I had a life since the bus drivers were already asleep. #truestory

Don’t get me wrong, Bus Uncle does not go around insulting everyone.

In good old-fashioned Uncle camaraderie, he will also very politely ask if you want to lim kopi (drink coffee) while you wait for your bus.

Image Credits: sgbusuncle Facebook
Image Credit: sgbusuncle Facebook

Or sometimes just plain trolls you.

Image Credit: sgbusuncle Facebook
Image Credit: sgbusuncle Facebook

And so, amidst the crazy exponential rate at which Bus Uncle is gaining popularity, Vulcan Post decided that it was time to speak to the brains behind Bus Uncle – Abhilash Murthy.

Image Credits: Abhilash Murthy Facebook
Image Credits: Abhilash Murthy Facebook

The Man Behind The Uncle

What were the motivations that inspired you to create Bus Uncle?

I was at a bus stop one day, and wanted to know how long I had to wait for Bus 65 to arrive.

I could use the electronic bus timing board and my bus timing apps but I would have to sift through a lot of unnecessary information. Scroll through bus numbers, find my bus station, click and tap buttons. And only then would I get that atomic information of “3 minutes”.

I have always been interested in learning and playing with new technology, so I wanted to learn about building bots and apps with Artificial Intelligence (AI). 

And so I told myself that I was going to make a bot that would just tell me “3 minutes”.

That’s it. Concise, accurate, and junk-free.

What was the process of setting up Bus Uncle? Were there any particular obstacles along the way?

There were some easy parts, and there were some hard parts.

I am very thankful to LTA for providing real-time public transport data for free. Facebook too, for allowing its Messenger Platform to be hooked to bots for free. I have had experience in building and deploying apps in production, so connecting them was easy.

The bot itself was difficult. If you write an app or website, it’s very straightforward. Click this button and it will do this. Swipe here and it will do that.

A bot is not designed to process interactions. It has to read a message, understand it, and figure out a smart response to it. And so, learning that was hard.

Furthermore, Bus Uncle has his own personality, so it was essentially the first time I was coding a human being.

There’s no tutorial, best practices, or one-stop solution for this.

How did you come up with Bus Uncle‘s responses? I notice that for some places such as NTU, Bus Uncle is unable to provide a response. What’s up with that?

My girlfriend and I sat together one day to map out what an angry bus uncle would say.

Then, based on programming logic from bus timings, the bot selects a reason at random and speaks back to the user.

As for the places, I get my street names, bus stop descriptions, and bus service data straight from LTA. And since LTA decided not to have a bus stop called “NTU”, the nearest public bus stop to NTU is Boon Lay. 

Image Credits: imgflip
Image Credit: imgflip

Not A Stranger To Digital Platforms

Despite his busy schedule with TradeGecko, Abhilash credits much of Bus Uncle‘s success to the working experience he gained.

* TradeGecko is a local startup that helps businesses manage their inventory on a single digital platform.

Did your experience of being part of the TradeGecko team help you in any way?

One hundred times yes.

Working at TradeGecko gives me the opportunity to sculpt myself into a world class software engineer. We keep up with the tech industry in Silicon Valley. Sometimes push ourselves even farther out.

I picked up the best practices about coding, user experience design and product management from the smartest people I have ever worked with.

I built Bus Uncle with the confidence of knowing and following these practices. My colleague Kyle, who is a designer, was responsible for the aesthetic appeal of Bus Uncle.

Image Credits: François Le Nguyen
Kyle Francia and Abhilash Murthy / Image Credit: François Le Nguyen

Can we hope to see a Bus Auntie or anything else in the future? 

My primary goal for Bus Uncle was to expose Singapore to bots and show them that apps and websites aren’t the only solutions to everything. So I hope this has triggered ideas in a bunch of brains out there.

The success of Bus Uncle really surprised me from the get-go, with my servers crashing 6-7 times within half hour. Everyone around me has been only supportive including my girlfriend, who wowed me with her Bus Uncle cushion.

As for future characters, I would love to see an MRT Aunty, Hollywood Angmoh, or Food Fatimah become a reality!

Image Credits: sgbusuncle Facebook
Image Credit: sgbusuncle Facebook

Cheeky Uncle Humour

And even if you don’t use Bus Uncle, I would totally recommend you follow this cranky uncle on his Facebook page for your daily dose of humour.

With tongue-in-cheek messages, this Bus Uncle loves to keep fans updated about his latest adventures on attending navigation classes.

Image Credits: sgbusuncle Facebook
Image Credit: sgbusuncle Facebook

And despite his very 2D status, cheeky Bus Uncle is demonstrating that he can hold his own against his 3D counterparts.

Image Credits: sgbusuncle Facebook
Image Credit: sgbusuncle Facebook

Featured Image Credit: Chan Yin Yin

 

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