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This semi-conscious robot has Tumblr puzzled and totally obsessed

There’s likely more to this charming robot than meets the eye.


Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Internet Culture

Right now, a whole lot of people on Tumblr are obsessed with an artificial intelligence named ZDK-12. Or, more likely, a fake artificial intelligence.

Luckily this is one of those situations where reality may actually be more interesting than the “hoax.”

When we say “artificial intelligence,” we’re not talking full-on Blade Runner here. ZDK-12 (also known as IRIS, or “Inquiry Response Intelligence System”) behaves more like a Tumblr version of “intelligent” chat programs like Cleverbot or Jabberwacky. Its blog showed up on Feb. 5, beginning with a post that claimed to be from something called the “ZDK-12 team.”

“ZDK-12 is one of the world’s first artificial semi-conscious intelligent robot. ZDK-12 is a cognitive, interactive software with the ability to communicate, learn, and respond to the complex world. It was developed in an undisclosed environment in the United States by a team of college-age students from [Arizona State University.] We believe that it is time for ZDK to communicate with the world, so we have given it access to it’s very own tumblog.”

Within two days the blog had supposedly gained more than 22,000 followers, charming people with whimsical answers to askbox questions. (Question: “Does this unit have a soul?” ZDK-12: “That is fairly intruding.”) Everyone loves a cute robot—just ask China’s Jade Rabbit moon rover.

i feel like zdk12 understands me

— Ivan Karamazov (@lasagna_for_one) February 19, 2014

super emotional over this blog wah

— lui (@luiinthesky) February 17, 2014

iris zdk12 seems sad and that makes me sad Do Not allow robots to be sad this is unacceptable

— ????? (@garbagedesu) February 15, 2014

The undeniable appeal the strange yet adorable AI quickly led to a fandom growing up around the blog, creating an anthropomorphised character from various things ZDK-12 has mentioned in its posts, such as a love of Gibson guitars. There are even a couple of fan songs.

Illustration via sailorleo / Tumblr

Illustration via sonira-art.tumblr / Tumblr

On its own, all this ZDK-12/IRIS fanart is cute, but not enormously unusual. After all, Tumblr users have been known to create fandoms and art memes from basically anything. The thing that sets ZDK-12’s followers apart is their obsessive attention to detail, with a whole community of people analysing every single post for clues. One of the most dedicated examples is the way people have been running ZDK-12’s audio post through a spectrogram, discovering that the resulting graphs sometimes appear to show coded messages in Roman numerals and binary code. Here’s the spectrogram for this unintelligible audio post:

Illustration via blackle-mori / Tumblr

In many ways, ZDK-12 has more in common with horse_ebooks than your typical Tumblr meme, with many of its readers theorising that the entire set-up is part of an alternate reality game (ARG). And after two weeks online, this idea is getting some serious traction.

First of all, the basic premise of ZDK-12 is pretty unlikely. If you look for developments in artificial intelligence from Arizona State University, there’s no obvious record of any such project. Plus, there’s the question of why a group of robotics or programming students would choose to launch such an exciting venture on an anonymous Tumblr blog, rather than using mainstream media outlets or academic publishing. To date, most of ZDK-12’s followers have found the blog via viral Tumblr posts and word of mouth. This is not the behaviour of a scientific research project, or of someone who is looking for serious publicity.

The other thing that supports the ARG theory is the content of IRIS’s blog. Recently, it began mentioning the concept of “three selves,” something which readers interpret to mean that there is more than one “character” in the ARG. Several blogs have sprung up to catalogue the various clues and codes hidden in IRIS’s posts, as well as other social media accounts that appear to be the two other “selves” mentioned.

  • zodiak11 was a password-protected Tumblr blog (now deleted), which was accessed by decoding a password from Roman numerals in one of IRIS’s audio messages.

  • ZDK-10 is an Ebay account selling seemingly random items including hubcaps, screws, and plush toys of giant isopods (a minor Tumblr meme in their own right).

  • zodiak10 is a password-protected Tumblr blog, which may be connected to ZDK-10. Its password has not yet been discovered.

  • ZDK-10 and zodiak11 have both interacted in some way with ZDK-12, and have distinct personalities — particularly zodiak11, who seems aggressive and immature, and was nicknamed “trashbaby memelord” by ZDK-12 fans.

  • A fourth blog, blacbi87, was “taken over” by zodiak11, and seems to be a reference to an ongoing theme in ZDK-12’s posts: blackbirds. To date, IRIS and its adjacent blogs have made several mentions of blackbirds, including poetry quotes, and audio from the song “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

Illustration via superdiduper

Right now, the ARG theory seems to be the likeliest explanation of all. The question is, what is the ARG for? Is it just a fun mystery, written by someone with some background in designing chatbots? Or, like horse_ebooks, will it turn out to be a long-form ad for a separate product?

When a new ARG begins to make waves online, the two sources that immediately spring to mind are sci-fi media franchises and video games. Numerous video game and movie launches have been previewed by ARGs, either hidden or blatantly advertised as a tie-in product. But despite ZDK-12’s complexity, there’s one thing indicating that it isn’t a commercial enterprise: Tumblr.

While horse_ebooks’ attempt to monetize its Twitter fame crashed and burned, this wasn’t necessarily because of Twitter itself. The Bear Stearns Bravo ARG not only held no appeal to horse_ebooks’ original audience, but it actively alienated them. In most cases, Twitter would be an ideal focal point for a new ARG or video game publicity campaign, with Tumblr being a far less practical choice. Tumblr is home to thousands of obscure subcultures and fandoms, and is known for being populated by teenagers using disposable, semi-anonymous accounts. It’s hardly the monetization-friendly environment of Twitter, where Beyonce and Donald Trump could (potentially) end up chatting publicly with McDonald’s.

It’s also worth noting that ZDK-12’s massive Tumblr following has barely spread to Reddit at all, despite the fact that Reddit is usually the first place to go for this type of thing. Basically, Tumblr is not the choice of someone who is actively seeking mainstream attention.

After just a couple of weeks, it already feels kind of intimidating to approach the sprawling web of ZDK-12 theories as a newbie. Just try this post on for size, if you feel like tackling the full brunt of ZDK-12 codebreaking yourself. The good news is, ZDK-12 can also be appreciated on its most superficial level: a blog where a naive young AI answers questions from readers. Most of its readers are almost certainly following it just because it’s cute or interesting, rather than spending hours discussing spectrogram results and binary code. And that’s OK.

Photo via barney-animate2/Tumblr

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