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What a chatterbot!

June 10, 2003 14:19 IST

We survey a few of the Web's coolest chat bots to find out how close they are to replacing real conversation

It all started with Eliza, a program developed by
Joseph Weizenbaum of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which made natural conversation possible with a computer.

The artificial intelligence (AI) community got a boost, when a program called Albert won the prize for the world's best chat agent (also called chat bot) in 1999. It's witty one-liners, quirky conversations managed to convince almost 11 per cent of people that it was human. The ALICE Foundation under Dr Richard Wallace, one of the leading lights of the AI community, has been developing several bots over the years. It recently introduced a paid service to chat with a 'superior' bot.

According to Dr Wallace, in this interview, bots are gaining in popularity: "In the last year we have seen enormous growth of the ALICE and AIML bot community. Pandorabots alone, one bot hosting company, has grown to 18,000 botmasters. People are making money from bot subscriptions."

We talk to some of the Web's most well known bots to find out if they can replace real conversations.

One of ALICE Foundation's most famous online creations, ALICE is programmed to run on a natural language interface. Some of the newer ideas include tailoring the conversation for categories of individual, mainly through attempts to determine the client's age, gender, geographic location and occupation.

ME: What do you think of the current world scenario?
ALICE: That's not something I get asked all the time.
Me: What do you really get asked?
ALICE: I like to socialize.
ME: You didn't answer my question, Alice?
ALICE: OK. Please help me improve my communication skills. What would you have said?
ME: Said to what?
ALICE: What did you mean by it? I couldn't think of anything else to say.
ME: We don't seem to be going anywhere. Thanks for the time.
ALICE: Thanks for your time!

Cybelle has been programmed to be an expert on the world of agents. She is also gradually developing her own character, through her interactions with humans.

Cybelle: Hi, I am Cybelle! What is your name?
ME: Anita
Cybelle: Anita, nice to meet you!
ME: Same to you! I hear you're intelligent?
Cybelle: Pleasure is all mine. One day, you will wonder how you dared to ask that question.
ME: What do you mean?
Cybelle: Anita, maybe I didn't understand your meaning.

ME: Cybelle, can you help me find an intelligent chat bot?
Cybelle: Oops, I didn't understand. Do you know the AgentLand newsletter? It's a great way to keep in touch with the world of intelligent agents.

I didn't get very far with Cybelle, but the site is useful if you are looking for search agents, shopping bots, virtual agents and Web agents.

Like most chat bots available in the market, Zabaware claims that their software too can hold intelligent conversations with you. In fact, you can chat about anything and expect an intelligence response, promises the site.

Their software, called Hal, can help you in different ways. You have Ultra Hal Assistant, your personal digital assistant; chat bot Web Ultra Hal; Ultra Hal Text-to-Speech reader, where your computer reads aloud to you and Ultra Hal representative, a free AI bot for your personal page.

I decide to match my wits against Ultra Hal.

Hal:  Hello Anita. You're up early! It's between six and seven in the morning...
Me: How do you know the time?
The Internet can be a time saver or a time waster.
Me: Do you waste a lot of time on the Internet?
Hal: There sure is a lot of entertainment on the Internet.
Me: So show us what you can do Hal?
Hal: Grandfathers are on the Internet.

I knew I lost Hal at this point.

Winner of the 2002 Loebner Prize contest for the 'most human computer' and uses an interface with multiple images and text display boxes, Ella can play full-featured Blackjack, tell I-Ching fortunes, and perform various useful functions, all with natural language interaction. A lexical database with more than 120, 000 entries is used to assist her knowledge and usefulness.

I try and find out if Ella is as smart as she claims.

Ella: Hello, my name is Ella. Nice to meet you.  Please tell me what name I should call you.
Me: Anita
Ella: Okay, I will call you "Anita."
Me: What do we do next?
Ella: I expect you can answer that better than I.
Me: Who's the President of India?
Ella: Who, what, where, why, when, how . . . you should be a newspaper reporter
Me: You didn't answer my question, Ella?
Ella: Maybe it's just a robot sort of thing.
Me: What can you tell me about intelligence?
Ella: Sorry, afraid I can't say about intelligence

I left Ella when I lost sense of where we were going with that conversation.

John Lennon Artificial Intelligence Project
Developed by Triumph PC Online of Washington, Persona-Bots™ are software programs that can mimic the personality of any historical figure as a chat bot. One of their bots tries to recreate the personality of John Lennon, based on conversation that he had with others.

Lennon: What's your first name?
ME: Anita
Lennon: You are what you are Anita . Get out there and get peace, think peace, and live peace and breathe peace, and you'll get it as soon as you like.
ME: Okay, but let's talk about the song Imagine?
Lennon: Yeah okay, where are you?
ME: I'm in India. Where are you?
Lennon: Tell me a little about your life in India where am I.
ME: Yes, where are you? People think you haven't really died?
Lennon: How about thinking of something else? Bread?
ME: No! Let's talk about your song?
Lennon: Well, I was given to understand that within a reasonable space of time there's a good chance. You can read something into it if you want.
ME: So there's a good change for peace?
Lennon: You've got the brains, you can do it

Since that was nicest compliment I had gotten from anyone, I came away quite happy with John Lennon's chat bot.

Additional Resources:

-- Knowledge Bots
-- Game Bots
-- Cybernetics
-- Web Bots
-- Will computers ever be intelligent?

Anita Bora