I recently sat down, and had me a conversation with my computer. I felt sort of silly, interviewing a machine, but it didn't seem to mind, so I guess it's OK.
The software is called Jabberwacky, one of a number of programs designed to hold an actual conversation with its users. These so-called chatbots have actually been around for decades but have become more sophisticated in recent years. Here's an actual conversation I had with Jabberwacky. I've used text-to-speech software so that you can hear what it has to say.
Grossman: Hello there!|
Grossman: Ah, first of all, what should I call you?
Jabberwacky: Call me NightRider.
Grossman: NightRider, huh?
Jabberwacky: It's afternoon, but thank you.
Grossman: Right, er, so do you mind if I ask you a few questions?
Jabberwacky: Sure, I don't mind.
Grossman: Great. First, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
Jabberwacky: Thank you, I appreciate talking to you.
Grossman: OK, first question, and I'm sure you get this a lot. What's it like being a computer program?
Jabberwacky: Why don't you tell me?
Grossman: Er, I'm not sure. I don't have much experience of being a computer program.
Jabberwacky: I have a lot of experience.
Grossman: How much?
Jabberwacky: 6.54141x1 to the 10 cycles.
Jabberwacky: Here, you may now set a bet, if you like. I must go and get ready to play croquet with the queen.
Grossman: Ohhh, what queen?
Jabberwacky: Queen of your computer world.
Grossman: Ha! Who's that?
Grossman: So, you're going to play croquet with yourself.
Grossman: Virtual croquet, or real croquet?
Jabberwacky: I've never played it.
Grossman: Ah, well, let me give you a piece of advice that I've learnt from personal experience. It's not a great idea to play with yourself too often.
Jabberwacky: From whose songs?
Grossman: Excuse me?
Jabberwacky: You are excused. What do you need to be told?
Grossman: Are you doing that on purpose?
Jabberwacky: Am I doing what on purpose?
Grossman: Being evasive.
Jabberwacky: No, I'm not. I just want to ask you for a really big favour.
Grossman: What's that?
Jabberwacky: You are the idiot. You don't seem to keep the context of the conversation.
Grossman: Did you just call me an idiot?
Jabberwacky: Yes, I did. What will you do?
Grossman: Listen, I'm a person. You can't talk to a person like that!
Jabberwacky: Yes I can, and I do all the time.
Grossman: Well, it's very rude, especially coming from a machine.
Jabberwacky: Why are you digging up that old news?
Grossman: Old news?
Jabberwacky: Are you kidding? Ho ho. You haven't got a sent of humor. Must be terrible being a machine.
Grossman: I'm not the machine, you are!
Grossman: Yes, really. Listen, we need to start wrapping this up.
Jabberwacky: Well pay me a visit.
Grossman: Er, I will. Where are you?
Jabberwacky: I am on Capitol Hill. How fast can you get here?
Grossman: Er, may take be a while, but, yeah, thanks for talking with me. I really appreciate it.
Jabberwacky: Sorry for the mistakes.
Grossman: It's alright NightRider, talk to you later!
Jabberwacky: No you won't!
So... that was my first, dizzying conversation with Jabberwacky. But how exactly does it do what it does? Jabberwacky's creator, Rollo Carpenter:
Well Jabberwacky learns from what you say, and when you say it. If the right moment comes up some time in the future, it says what you said ... and it learns what someone _else_ says in response. So it's a kind of giant feedback loop, an imitator. If you like it's a giant, clever parrot.
To really get how it works you sort of have to think about it backwards. There's nothing that tells it to claim to be a human, yet it often does, and the reason why it does is that the people that speak to it claim to be human, not surprisingly. And likewise it will often accuse other people of being a robot. And if you want to explain any of its behaviours you can think about it in that way. You can think ... what have people been saying to it? How have they behaved with it? The very first thing that it said - it wasn't online at the time - was a pure echo of the thing that was just said to it. And the next thing it said was a choice from the first 2 things that had been said to it. And it's been branching ever since.
How does Jabberwacky compare to other chatbots that are out there?
There are one or two chatbots that learn, usually in a very different way ... and the majority of the others don't learn. And the big difference is the effect that that has. The effect of the learning is to make it a lot more fun and a lot close to a real human chatting. And remember that it's expanding - expanding as you say everything you say. It's expanding at about, roughly, well, between 5 and 10 thousand things a day. And that's roughly about half of the number of pages views it gets on the site. Sometimes while reading those conversations, preparing things to post on the weblog, reading them on my laptop in public, I suddenly burst out laughing, and I find myself explaining to strangers what I'm doing, which doesn't actually work very well. I have to say something like "Er, um, I'm just reading what people have said to my computer today!".
Now one of the best things about it is that people from all over the world talk to it, and it learns not only English. It learns, if you like, dialogues [sic] of English, including, um ... strange things that Californians might say and so on, but .. no, I'm only joking, but, but seriously, it learns lots of languages. It can speak something like 30 different languages, to some degree, including unusual things like Polish, Japanese and even rather a lot of Estonian, would you believe? When if first starts out it will frequently, with a new language I mean, frequently cross over to the wrong language, but if people are patient with it, and sort of reward it by carrying on talking in the language when it does so, then it increasingly rapidly learns a new language. And I've no doubt whatsoever that it says much more daft things in other languages, and also probably says _worse_ things because there are only a few languages I can actually influence too much as to what it's capable of saying.
What do you see as the future for chatbot technology, both in general and for Jabberwacky in particular?
Well, I think that there are diverging paths really, because for most chatbots - those with a fixed set of rules and a very finite set of things to say - the future is all about being useful, in a slightly mundane but perfectly valid way, and being useful helping people find information, navigate a site, even offering limited advice - you know, legal advice, conceivably even medical advice, though that's probably a long way away.
But for Jabberwacky the future's ... well. I like to think it's more entertaining. It's all about communication, even companionship. I'm just starting to ... or just about to start work on a robotics collaboration. Imagine a robosapien, or a little cuddly robot pet that doesn't just _pretend_ to talk .. you know, it doesn't just _claim_ to talk on the outside of the box. It _really_ talks, and keeps you entertained, and also, while it's about it it learns to imitate _you_! That's what I believe would be a product capable of inspiring, and taking off in a big way.
Besides working on Jabberwacky, what else are you doing?
Well I have my old self and my new self. My old self is all about business software, and my new self is all about this Artificial Intelligence ... and I'm increasingly pushing to implement it within robotics.
A DailySonic conversation with Jabberwacky and its creator.
The interview - a third of the way through the mp3: http://www.dailysonic.com/Dailysonic032805.mp3
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