Curio, a startup building a platform that turns expert journalism into professionally narrated content, is embracing AI technology to create custom audio episodes based on your directions. The company already today has a large catalog of high-quality journalism licensed from partners such as The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, New York Magazine, and others, which it used to train its AI model. powered by OpenAI technologies. As a result, Curio users can now ask its new AI helper, “Rio”, a question they want to know more about, and then have it return a bespoke audio episode containing only fact-checked content – no AI “hallucinations” .
The company is also today announcing an additional strategic investment from the head of TED, Chris Andersen, a previous investor in Curio’s Serie A round. Prior to this, Curio had raised more than $15 million from investors including EarlyBird, Draper Esprit, Cherry Ventures, Horizons Ventures, 500 Startups and others.
Anderson’s new contribution amount is not being disclosed, but Curio says he is a “significant investor”.
Founded in 2016 by ex-BBC strategist Govind Balakrishnan and London lawyer Srikant Chakravarti, Curio had the concept of offering a subscription-based service providing access to a curated library of journalism translated into audio. To do this, the company partnered with dozens of media organizations to license their content, which is then narrated by voice actors and added to the Curio app. The experience is an improvement over the news audio offerings of services like Pocket, where users save articles to listen to later, as Curio’s content is read by real people, not robotic-sounding AI voices.
With the addition of its AI feature, Curio can now also curate custom audio on top of its hand-picked selection of audio journalism. The company believes this could become a powerful use case for AI at a time when there are legitimate concerns about AI chatbots providing false information or fabricating facts when they don’t know how to generate the right response – something that is called a “hallucination”. We’ve already seen falsehoods from AI chatbots when both Google and Microsoft demonstrated their new AI search tools, for example.
Curio’s AI, on the other hand, won’t return anything it “makes up” as it combines audio clips from across the catalog in response to user queries, essentially creating mini-podcast episodes that let you explore a topic through quality, fact-checked journalism.
The company suggests you could use the AI feature through clues like, “Tell me about the possibility of peace in Ukraine,” “What’s the future of food?” “Tell me about the US debt ceiling”, “Tell me why Vermeer is so great”, or “I have 40 minutes, update me on AI.”
However, the AI cannot return breaking news information because it takes time to translate news articles into spoken audio. But it could be used to explore different topics in more detail.
“We are trying to create an AI that doesn’t hallucinate from a technical perspective,” explains Curio’s chief marketing officer, Gastón Tourn. “And the second thing that’s interesting is this idea of unlocking knowledge from journalism — from news — because when you ask questions, it’s actually also proposing articles from, maybe from a few years ago, but they’re still super relevant for what’s going on right now.”
In addition to the media brands mentioned above, Curio also has relationships with The Economist, FT, WIRED, Vox, Vulture, Scientific American, Fast Company, Salon, Aeon, Bloomberg Businessweek, Foreign Policy, The Cut and others – more than 30 publications are supported in total. (We should note that the New York Times isn’t one of them. And the company launched its own audio journalism app today, it turns out.)
To get started with the new Curio AI, type your question or prompt in the box provided, as if you were interacting with an AI chatbot, such as ChatGPT. (Curio relies on OpenAI’s GPT 3.5 model, we understand.) This feature is available both on the web and in Curio’s mobile apps.
To create the personalized audio delivery for you, Curio crunches through over 5,000 hours of audio, but from the user’s perspective, it all takes just a few moments. This results in a modified audio episode with an introduction and two articles from Curio’s publications.
Curio itself is a premium subscription service that costs $24.99 per month (or $14.99 per month if you pay for a year upfront). However, the AI feature is free to use for now. The company says it’s because it wants to get “Rio” in the hands of as many people as possible so it can learn. For example, it’s trying to understand what length users prefer these personalized episodes, but right now it’s leaning towards shorter articles.
Later, Curio may add more features, such as the ability to share your episodes with others or get suggestions based on what other users ask for.
“We don’t see AI as a curation tool,” Tourn notes. “We see it more as a discovery tool. We think what AI does is dig up content that’s super interesting and find ways to interact with it, but the curation is still human and the voices are still human.
The company today has a customer base of thousands of subscribers and over a million app downloads, but the AI addition could lead to the app gaining more traction as users explore this unique use case for AI. The company expects to reach 100,000 paying subscribers by the end of the year.
Updated, 5/17/23, 12:57 ET to include forecast.