May 1, 2015

#HowOldRobot goes viral: Human learnings from machine learning

It’s early on day three of a mini viral sensation – #HowOldRobot swept through the Squid tank at approximately 9.25 this morning, leaving behind several photoshops and a few battered egos. Try it out yourself if you haven’t already. Here’s me. I’m 27.


We’re not here to discuss the ability of this fun little website to guess your age – which is, by the way, its sole function from a user’s point of view – but here to provide a quick snapshot of why we’ve even heard of it.

According to this blog by two of the Microsoft engineers behind it, was created to test machine learning. The site was emailed out to a few hundred people with a request for feedback, and the team modestly hoped for around 50 users.

In just three hours, the site had reached 35,000 people, then 200,000 a few hours after that, and by now has been featured on every tech, marketing or distraction website that we could care to mention. Whether the team had designed it to spread so far or not, they had applied a few simple rules of viral content; Simplicity, shareability and measurement.

Firstly, the premise of #HowOldRobot is super simple, requiring very little time commitment to have a dabble, a giggle, and share it. It’s a powerful idea too – the very notion of a machine telling you straight how old you look appeals to everyone’s innate curiosity. Here’s Steve’s untampered result.

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Perhaps the hashtag could be more prominent, and the share buttons could also be bigger. But there’s plenty of virality-boosting humour – for instance, it has a pretty good guess at the age of Gandalf and Magneto.


The final ingredient in all this virality is, apparently, Turkey. Yep, of those 35,000 initial users, real time data showed 29,000 came from Turkey after influencers on Twitter got hold of it there. Microsoft were also able to recognise a need to tweak the photo upload feature after monitoring use. Ok, so the final ingredient isn’t Turkey, but gathering accurate data – being able to react, respond and make changes in real time is vital.

Right then, I’m off to buy some anti-wrinkle cream…