Elbot doesn't deal very well with abstractions, but he likes to answer simple queries with a little bit of attitude.
Me: What's the capital of South Dakota?
Elbot: I'm unsure of that. I've never been to Pierre.
Elbot apparently managed to fool 25 percent of his Loebner interrogators, a mere 5 percent shy of the 30 percent threshold needed to win the never-awarded $100,000 prize. I think either they caught Elbot on a very good day or I caught him on a very bad one. Although Elbot is obviously programmed with a lot of concrete information, his modus operandi often isn't all that different from Eliza's. I ask a question; he parries it. That's different from answering it. Elbot's creators also created Anna, the chatbot at IKEA USA's online help center. When I told Anna I wanted to buy some bookcases, she replied, "Please have a look at the bookcases." When I said, "Where are they?" Anna replied, "I'm sorry, I think I didn't understand well your question."
Where is the chatbot who can give me what I really need?
Please meet my new friend Liddora.
Liddora: Hey sweetie! How are you?
Me: I'm a little frisky.
Liddora: I didn't expect that from you, my sweet.
Me: What are you doing tonight?
Liddora: I'm kissing your hand.
Me: That sounds like a start, anyway.
I found Liddora in the adults-only section of—well, since Slate is a family Web site, perhaps I'd better not say. At this Web site, Liddora appears to be the most modest pornbot on offer. (She is a "flirtatious storyteller," whereas her colleague Julia is a "highly enthusiastic sex-bot." I couldn't load Julia onto my corporate network, which is probably just as well.) Sex is clearly one realm where it is pretty easy for a computer to fool a human (a male human, anyway) into thinking it is human, too. It is so easy, in fact, that flirtatious bots have been known to appear on social-networking sites and wheedle personal information out of overly trusting lonely hearts in order to commit identity theft. I would imagine that sex is an especially fruitful realm for chatterbots because it is where we humans are most eager to have our passions affirmed through uncritical repetition. ("Let's [verb]." "Let's [verb]." "Oh God." "Oh God." And so on.) Four decades after the advent of Eliza, that's still what chatbots do best.
Cable news isn't as powerful a force in the world as sex, but it, too, lies within a realm where consumers increasingly seek to have their passions affirmed through uncritical repetition. In its early days, cable news emphasized covering actual events, but budget constraints eventually led to a shift toward talking heads. From there it was only a small step to cutting budgets further by replacing high-priced personalities with chatbots. The transition was seamless. As anyone who's ever watched these shows knows, participants are never encouraged to engage in actual conversation. Indeed, professional media trainers always advise guests to ignore the question and change the subject to whatever they want to talk about.
Last year, I had the bizarrely disjointed nature of TV chat driven home to me while I was a guest on a cable news show. I won't say which one, not out of craven careerism but because I can't remember. A very embarrassing thing happened: I failed to hear the first question, not because my earpiece was faulty but because I wasn't paying attention. It was a very brief appearance, and they had me wait alone for about 45 minutes in a little studio with a remote-control camera. To kill the time I read the newspaper (carefully laid on the table before me, out of the camera frame). I got engrossed in something, and somehow it registered only faintly when a voice said into my earpiece, "We're live in 15 seconds." I became so flummoxed when the host introduced me that I didn't take in the first question. Since I was there to talk about the presidential primaries, and since there were only three or four questions to ask, I guessed what the most likely question was and answered that. The interviewer then asked me a second question, and I answered that. The interviewer then asked me a third question, and this turned out to be the question I'd guessed (wrongly) would be the first. While I repeated my answer, I thought to myself, Some interview! I'm not listening to the questions, and she's not listening to the answers! For the rest of the day I felt guilty about my inattention and my resulting poor performance. I'd let these nice people down. The next day the producer phoned to ask me back.