How a sarcastic AI taskmaster came to rule the App Store

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HAL 9000 is the spiritual antecedent of CARROT. Photo:
HAL 9000 is the spiritual antecedent of CARROT. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Most apps are way too nice to us. “Don’t worry that you missed your 10,000 steps today,” they say. “There’s always tomorrow.”

CARROT apps are different. Whether you’re using a CARROT calorie counter or a CARROT weather forecaster, all the apps in the growing line have one thing in common: an hilariously sadistic AI character that serves as your in-app guide, dishing out harsh punishments if you miss your targets.

“So many of the apps out there are just cloyingly sweet, CARROT creator Brian Mueller tells Cult of Mac. “They’re always telling you that you’re doing a good job, no matter what you’re doing. I wondered what would happen if you did the opposite and created a sarcastic, irreverent personality who would yell at you if you don’t get stuff done. And, to my surprise, people really, really responded to it.”

CARROT mastermind Brian Mueller. Photo: Brian Mueller
CARROT mastermind Brian Mueller. Photo: Brian Mueller

Science fiction has a long history of chatty artificial intelligence bots run amok, from Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey to GLaDOS in the Portal video games. Apple even tries to give Siri its own personality. Mueller’s stroke of genius was inventing a new and memorable character that draws from sci-fi’s time-honored conventions.

“I’ve always been interested in the idea of these robots that go out of control, and find ways around their programming,” says Mueller. “They’ve always had such fun personalities and great writing.”

Mueller’s sarcastic AI character is a phenomenon, with his CARROT apps — including a to-do list app, an alarm clock, a fitness tracker app, a calorie counter and even a weather app having racked up more than 1 million downloads. His apps have been featured on Good Morning America and appeared as an answer on the gameshow Jeopardy!

The personality of the AI, which also offers much-needed praise if you hit your goals, is clearly a hit with iOS users. How did he dream it up?

Mueller's original concept for, err,
Mueller’s original concept for Waffles, the snooty dog.

Mueller was on course to become a Hollywood screenwriter when he met his wife and decided to stay in Philadelphia to get a “proper job.” Mueller’s wife lasted, but his dreams of a serious job didn’t. Following his long-time love affair with Apple, Mueller tried his hand at app development, despite not having the first clue about how to code.

He bought a book on iOS programming hoping to pick up enough knowledge to be able to hire a programmer “without sounding like a total asshole,” but found that he learned more easily than he expected.

His first app was the CARROT to-do list: It’s a straightforward idea, but Mueller had never found an app that worked quite as he wanted it to.

“I wanted to come up with a reason to make people keep returning to the app,” he says. “Gamification was a big idea at the time, and I figured I could come up with a central character whose personality would hook you, and who you could build an actual relationship with.”

What started as a snooty cartoon dog quickly transformed into a sarcastic AI bot through which Mueller could channel equal parts drill sergeant, geeky fanboy and … the women in his life?

“It’s kind of like a person nagging you,” he says, laughingly describing his character’s personality as being inspired by his mom, his sister and his wife. “But it’s only because CARROT cares.”

Mueller started with meager hopes for his first CARROT app, saying he was convinced would get a total of 30 downloads. After all, what user wants to be insulted after downloading a premium app? “I really had no idea how it would do,” he says. “I thought my only supporters would be friends and family.”

At first, this proved to be the case. On his first official day as a developer with something to sell, Mueller got 27 downloads. Today that number is in the seven figures.

“Cult of Mac was one of the first places to cover the app,” he says. “Then things went crazy. I knew I had hit a nerve when there was a question about CARROT on Jeopardy!

“I have all 4 CARROT apps, [and] just can’t get enough of sentient apps insulting me,” notes one typical iTunes review for CARROT Fit. “I think it’s pretty good natured, I can laugh at myself, and she is pretty silly. She is also good at encouraging you in fun ways.”

Mueller works alone on his apps, doing everything from writing and designing the graphics to coding and marketing. In doing so, he is gradually becoming a one-man app empire.

“I don’t regret it for a second,” he says, when I ask about the Hollywood career that could have been. “I’m able to get out a lot of my humor and creativity through CARROT. It’s become my life. Even when I’m not in front of my computer, I’m thinking about dialogue and different ways to solve one UI problem or another.”

Next up? An Apple Watch app, a possible CARROT game — and then some sleep, hopefully.

Although not too much, if Mueller’s sadistic AI has anything to say about it.

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  • cosus

    You know, I bought their first app and sure it was interesting, even fun… but soon came tedium, tedium that cost extra.Really, their apps were just was forgiving as their competition for the only difference was the language and the chipmunk voices.

    Carrot has its charm, but really over time, I don’t see it being anything but a niche market. This is evident by the fact there’s a lack of copycats unlike apps like snapchat.