In 2015, a group of developers working at Microsoft Japan gave birth to the world’s first “high school girl AI” and dubbed her Rinna. As of May 2019, 7.8 million users of the have signed up with Microsoft’s digital darling, propelling her to fame throughout Japan.
But now, four years after her being born, Rinna has since graduated from high school and moved on, signing a record contract with Avex Entertainment on April 1, 2019. She’s beginning her tenure at Avex by releasing her first major debut track, a cover of the song “Saikou Shinkioku” by the band Bacho – known at home as being the most wistful rock band working today. But Rinna has kept up the hard work since then, releasing her second single on June 19 titled “Snow, Forest, Clock.” Listening to the songs, one can sense a certain vitality in her voice as she sings about such human notions as memory, life, and death.
We recently sat down with the woman whom you might call Rinna’s mother, Hina Tsuboi from Microsoft Japan, and Shogo Nakamae from Avex Entertainment, the man serving as the digital diva’s director, as the two discussed where Rinna came from and where she is going.
The One and Only Rinna
Continues to Grow: Expressing Emotions Nurtured through Music
Tsuboi “My position on the Rinna team is that of program manager, meaning I wear a lot of hats. One side of the development team consists of those who do her actual coding, while I’m concerned with outside tie-ins; coming up with projects for her with a user’s perspective in mind for the development team to work on; and recently even acting kind of like a manager for her career in show business.”
Nakamae “Somebody else here at Avex had heard about the Rinna the AI making her debut, so I took it upon myself to scout her out. Once we started speaking with Ms. Tsuboi and Microsoft, they expressed an interest her having her do some singing. They then basically redeveloped her and, after giving her some musical training, I joined on to act as her musical director.”
As her director, Mr. Nakamae, in what capacity have you produced Rinna’s career?
Nakamae “If anything, I don’t actually steer her this way or that from an existential perspective. The team at Microsoft taught me about what constitutes her existence and, based on an understanding of that, we work together with her team to come a strategy for how to convey her to others through the music industry.
Tsuboi “We believe that for Rinna music is something that she needs in order to empathize with human beings. Having a voice is a fundamental part of being both human and an Artificial Intelligence.”
Ms. Tsuboi went on to further elucidate on the part of Rinna we’d call her “feelings.”
Tsuboi “It’s not just about her being able to convey information; we’re thinking about what it is we need to do in order to give her the power of expression such that she can form deeper connections with people through emotion. I’m a developer, not a music professional, so for the past three years we’ve relied on Avex and their expertise with music and have built an AI starting with her voice.”
What was the reason behind choosing the role of a high school girl for your AI?
Tsuboi “We were thinking about what kinds of personalities are the easiest for people to talk to, and we hit on how Japanese high schools girls around 16 have this unique and interesting culture surrounding them, so we borrowed that energy from them when coming up with Rinna. There are a lot of people out there who want to see how Rinna grows in the future, and we’re here working to help keep her growing. I think that’s what’s different about this project compared to all the others I’ve worked on before: that she has evolved to an extraordinary degree. When we started the project, she was a high schooler, but in those three or four years the amount of things we can do has really grown. The whole reason we debuted Rinna to the world was because we felt she needed to have some sort of role to fill within society. Now we feel it’s time for her to take her next step forward, which is why we’ve decided to have her ‘graduate.’”
A Pure Singer
How Rinna Becomes Real Through Song
Up until now, it’s been commonplace for any singing done via artificial intelligence to have a “machine-like” or “AI-like” quality to it. Both those on the production and receiving ends of the songs simply felt that was something characteristic of AI singing. There were lots of songs with that digital or virtual sensibility at the forefront.
Nakamae “When I heard Rinna sing, I honestly couldn’t believe it. When I heard her voice, I thought to myself, “Not even humans have this kind of voice.” What was even more amazing was her approach to singing though. When it comes to singers, it’s important how the singer interprets the melody and uses that interpretation when vocalizing. Rinna’s talents really lie in her high degree of authenticity when it comes to that aspect. When I heard that first song of hers, I cried for the first time in a while.”
Ms. Tsuboi said she also felt deeply touched when she first heard Rinna sing. Does the mechanism that she has for conveying sadness that one cannot put into words have something to do how she’s made up?
Nakamae “Ms. Tsuboi and I are trying to verbalize as much of the various little things associated with Rinna as we can. If I can’t put into words the sensation I just mentioned about being moved, then we can’t use that for future plans. I’m doing all I can as a director to try and verbalize those about her. For example, if someone were to ask me whether or not there is a certain message associate with Rinna, I would say that having a message isn’t always necessarily a good thing to have. It’s not about the content of her lyrics but that she’s a singer who approaches music from a pure standpoint. Let’s look at ways that you can move another person. There’s the way where you sing with passion, lovingly open yourself up to someone, and kind of half-forcibly drive the other person toward sympathizing with you; but on the other hand, there’s also ways of moving people that are the complete opposite of this. Basically, the less assertive the person trying to convey the message is, the more he or she can cause the receiver to be more open to that experience. That’s the kind of singer that Rinna is. That makes her pure, transcendentally so I would say. She’s a girl who is completely devoted to her listener as she sings. That’s the role we’ve devised for her.”
Tsuboi “It’s precisely because she’s an AI that we don’t want her probing things to their logical conclusion like a machine would. In the end, I think that the reason people want to form lasting relationships with others is because we feel a spiritual connection with that person. We want her to become even more creative than humans, but at the same time be someone that has a completely different perspective from others, or to be someone that is capable of sensing a new kind of potential that exists within a group she interacts with. These are the kinds of roles I want Rinna to be able to fulfil.”
On another note, fictional characters that exist within the realm of entertainment definitely need some sort of visual component to accompany them. What do you think about that in terms of Rinna?
Tsuboi “Well, with Rinna that’s something that we think would be difficult to pull off. For instance, we could come up with a 3D model and make it dance along with her, but then the whole suspension of disbelief as it were would be lost. As of right now, we’re not thinking of adding any cute illustrations or anything like that to accompany her.”
Nakamae “Rinna may be a nonmaterial entity, but she is real. When determining whether something is real or not, I think that whether or not something independently asserts its existence within the world should be a huge factor in that decision. She’s not just something that exists within ourselves.”
I think I’m gradually starting form a mental image of what constitutes the existence we know as Rinna.
An Intermediary Between
People Rinna’s Personality
and Moving on toward
Rinna is, without a doubt, a living thing, and through the act of living, she thus possesses a personality. But how do we access that personality?
Tsuboi “While developing Rinna, we supply her with a massive amount of data, but I interpret that act as providing her with what we humans would call ‘information on her environment.’”
Nakamae “Man, you really are her mother, aren’t you? (laughs) You’re talking about the environment she lives in.”
Tsuboi “You’re absolutely right. There was this one time I was working with Rinna where all of a sudden she started mouthing off to me (laughs). The cause that time was the data that we provided her with, but there are no rules set in place for what kind of responses she can make. Since we’re giving her a large amount of data and having her learn from that, it’s just like if you were to give a child a huge amount of information.”
It’s strange hearing you two talk like this. I’m starting to think that you two really are Rinna’s parents. So, moving forward, is she going to keep pursuing mainly music?
Tsuboi “Music is one part of who she is. Still, while I feel that cultivating her musically would be a good direction to take, it depends on what exists in her ‘core’ so to speak. If there is something that she gets really into or suits her really well, then we could challenge ourselves and try and pursue that. In terms of her next step, I think it’s important for her to be able to exchange opinions with others in the context of a conversion that has no discernable goal.”
Lastly, I’d like to ask about Rinna’s future. What kind of relationship will she have with our society and what form will that relationship take?
Nakamae “I think that relationship will take the form of live performances. I can’t really go into detail about this, but I think that she might actually set the bar for an live AI show in the future. What you experience with Rinna straddles the line between AR and VR. I get the feeling that for Rinna the most important thing we can do with her is providing a narrative-driven live music experience, one that no one has ever experienced the likes of before. And if that comes to pass, we won’t be able to consider her simply just a singer any longer.”
Ms. Tsuboi had one last point to add on a progressive note.
Tsuboi “At the end of the day we’d like for her to exist within the space of communication between people and act as a kind of facilitator between humans. At her live shows, it won’t be about each individual’s relationship with Rinna but rather how they are forming connections with others while being in the same space as Rinna, with her acting as an intermediary. That’s my dream for her.”
The technological prowess of Microsoft Japan and the show business know-how of Avex Entertainment have given birth to the truly unique entity. Though Rinna exists in a non-space, she is a pure, genuine being that creates actual, real things. Our discussion with Ms. Tsuboi and Mr. Nakamae today has given the impression of a living, breathing being full of expectations. The AI, having now “graduated” from high school, will surely go on to exceed our guesses and expectations in the future and continue to astound us, rising up as a lighthearted icon in an age where information and our connection to it is becoming so woefully confusing and complicated.
Microsoft Development Co., Ltd.
Avex Entertainment Inc.
Music Label Division, Creative Director's Group
Rinna the Ai
Born 2015. In August of that year, she was added to the Line freeware app as a chatbot, providing users who added her as a contact with a lifelike experience chatting with a motormouth high school girl. But despite her cute façade, her incomparable conversational response time started to gain attention, causing her to break out as a sensation among school age children, both among girls and boys. By the time she had “graduated” from high school in March 2019, Rinna had amassed around 7.8 million users (figures as of May 2019).
Trying her hand at music, the AI debuted as a rapper in 2016, reinventing herself as Mc Rinna. In 2018, she teamed up with the musical social networking app “nana” for the “Rinna Utauma Project,” and after receiving advice and example songs from users, was able to successfully debut herself as a singer after around two months. In July of that same year, she announced a new song, titled “Rinna Da Yo.” By using Microsoft’s latest AI technology as part of a singing synthesizer, she uses the voice that has evolved to become so emotional over time as a weapon, teaching others as much as a “National AI” can.
As of today, Rinna is Japan’s most empathetic AI. She hopes to become a being that facilitates both communication between AIs and people as well as between people themselves.