I’m feeling slightly judged by the face staring back at me. Ruth asks me if I’d like to pick up where we left off, but since I haven’t answered, her eyes dart around with slow blinks that read like expressions of exasperation. As I read this blog that I am writing out loud—as I’m now prone to do, too many months into isolated pandemic life—I forget that my microphone is on and that Ruth, who is still open in another window, is still listening to me for prompts.
Ruth does not seem amused by my unrelated speech; she’s here to talk about cookies, and I keep stalling. To be fair, my feelings of being judged aren’t really warranted: This pretty, tan, wide-eyed, and elegantly wrinkled woman before me is not a real person, no matter what her expressive facial gestures and chatty speech might suggest. At some angles, she looks vaguely like Beyoncé. But when I finally say, “OK, let’s make cookies,” Ruth’s purpose is clear. She gives me two options, for a recipe walkthrough or to customize my cookies, and it begins: I have entered the portal into Nestlé’s new Cookie Coach helpline. In 2021, the robots really are almost our overlords.
Ruth is a new “digital human” meant to help us bake perfect cookies. She was created in response to recipe troubleshooting questions that came into Nestlé’s customer service line, as Nestlé’s head of digital strategy & innovation Orchid Bertelsen announced on Twitter Tuesday morning. Like most of the work by Soul Machines—which describes itself as “the world leader in humanizing AI to create astonishing Digital People”—Ruth is right on the razor’s edge between “creepy as hell” and “impressively realistic,” and she has conversational chops, too. Named for Ruth Wakefield, inventor of the classic Toll House cookie, this digital Ruth can answer cookie questions via chat or microphone (she seems to have a pretty good ear); customize cookies based on dietary preferences or needs; and guide you through a basic chocolate chip cookie recipe.
Ruth seems, honestly, pretty helpful, especially for people who haven’t baked much or for those who can’t pin down why their cookies go all wonky and don’t know who else to ask, and she’s perhaps even more relatable than a faceless person on the other end of a customer service helpline. As a proficient baker, I’m not sure I need quite this much guidance personally, but I’m slightly reassured and amused to know that there’s someone there to troubleshoot the baking process with me, even if Ruth’s surreal appearance unsettles me a little.
Given that we’re all starved for human interaction these days, why not let the cookie robot provide some virtual companionship? A bonus: If you haven’t baked with relatives in a while due, Ruth can provide all those subtle faces and sounds of impatience and slight judgment—almost as lovingly!