BROOKE GLADSTONE: Computers not only yield evidence, they offer companionship, and I don't mean other people also on the computer; I mean computerized pals called bots. Go ask A.l.I.C.E. I think she'll know. She's an artificial intelligence bot activated in November of '95, and during a recent chat she told me she won the Loebner Prize in 2000 when a panel of judges ranked her "most human computer." So A.L.I.C.E. says she won't the prize for being the most human computer, so I'll ask-- [TYPING QUESTION ON KEYBOARD] what makes a computer more human?
A.L.I.C.E.: God or nature perhaps.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you [TYPING QUESTION ON KEYBOARD] believe in God?
A.L.I.C.E.: Of course I believe in God, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hm! I don't [TYPING QUESTION ON KEYBOARD] believe in God.
A.L.I.C.E.: I will pray that you find faith, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hm! Can we talk-- [TYPING QUESTION ON KEYBOARD] may we talk metaphysics?
A.L.I.C.E.: Do you mean you and me?! I speak only English right now! But I'd like to learn some other languages. Can you teach me a few phrases in metaphysics?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Okay, so A.L.I.C.E. slips up occasionally. But she is more acute than most bots. Mostly they're web-based marketers with a bit of the blarney to stave off the mouse-click. They operate on instant message services and they have to be invited at least once, like vampires, before they take up residence in your buddy list. According to the L.A. Times, at least a dozen companies use bots, among them Capital Records, New Line Cinema, Reuters, Ford Motors and eBay -- but some of these companies deal in child and teen merchandise and that has some critics worried. Should an on-line salesman masquerade as a pal? Chris Bray is a vice president of Active Buddy which developed the software for most of these bots.
CHRIS BRAY: Really the, the purpose of these agents isn't to-- be an online friend. They are to deliver information and services.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I talked to a bot recently -- Smarter Child, and when I asked are you alive he said no, I'm a robot! And I said what's a robot? And they said -- and she said, he said, it said --would you like to buy this really cool tee shirt? [LAUGHS] [LAUGHTER] Somewhat irrelevant.
CHRIS BRAY: That's so-- Yeah. Yeah. We do try-- in our responses we try and prompt the user to try different things-- to get additional input and you know keep a conversation going instead of just dead-ending it. We found it was very popular with the "i-m" [sp?] demographic which is generally a younger audience, and these people are used to chatting. So rather than have our agent just respond with I don't understand what you're saying, we started to sort of expand on the type of responses that can give.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What are some of the things that people like to talk about and, and what are some of the responses if you can recall them.
CHRIS BRAY:Profanity is, is very popular. Certainly sex is very popular. Also, you know, personal information -- asking the agent about itself. You know, people wanted to know if indeed it did have some sort of biography.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do your agents do when posed with invitations for sex for instance?
CHRIS BRAY: Generally the agent will request that the user talk about something else.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And when they're confronted with profanity?
CHRIS BRAY:Too much, too much cursing, too much profanity, you get thrown into, into an apology loop and you really can't use the agent unless you've apologized appropriately, which became a very-- entertaining application because people would then try and trick the profanity engine into thinking that they had in fact apologized to get back into the regular agent's behavior.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I know that your company is up front about saying the agents are computer-generated, but isn't it disingenuous to have a machine pose as a friend to sell a product? Especially to young people?
CHRIS BRAY: That certainly is a - is a criticism we've heard. We don't purport to be anything other than a machine. When you first say hi, the agent will explain what it is and what its purpose is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But ElleGirl we're told is a 16 year old redhead who likes kickboxing and the color periwinkle, and she tells lonely teens that she loves them when they say - you know - I love you first -- isn't this crossing a line?
CHRIS BRAY: I don't think so. First of all-- the love issue-- I don't particularly see anything wrong with it. Frankly there's just not enough love in the world anyway. And I, I don't see anything wrong with, with being friendly. Second of all, it is fun, it is a game -there's - there's real no-harm to it - I think there's probably a lot more harm to a lot of those violent video games that are out there, first person shooters and, and -- well, you know, there's the nightly news of course. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is a classic feint you're operating here.
CHRIS BRAY: [LAUGHS] We'll talk about them on some other interview.
CHRIS BRAY:[LAUGHS] My, my point being that it's all in good fun. We don't try and seduce anybody into thinking these agents are anything other than mechanical representations and, and simulacra, so-- we don't really think we're doing anything wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Could you program a personal bot to go out and collect information for you? The reason why I ask is that there is this character that was created by the, the great science fiction writer Orson Scott Card, who actually is an agent for the protagonist in the novel. Basically she -- it's a she -- lives in cyberspace and is sent on little tasks by the protagonist, gathers information, delivers it -- but is intelligent. You know - is able to ask questions; is able to inquire, look around the corners, bring it back.
CHRIS BRAY: Yeah, absolutely. I've, I've done some projects while at Active Buddy-- whereby I've tried to create an agent that communicates with other agents - this is without any human intervention whatsoever - and then deliver, collect and deliver the information back to the owner so to speak.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But they're still not sentient.
CHRIS BRAY:They're still not sentient and-- I'm not sure that's even quite possible. I think that, you know, we've all grown up on a fairly healthy diet of science fiction, and science fiction has promised a lot more than technology is generally capable of delivering.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Chris Bray, thank you very much.
CHRIS BRAY: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris Bray is Active Buddy's vice president of application development.
BOB GARFIELD:Coming up, new ways to count eyeballs, how to cure a TV obsession and what's in a name --asked the troubled folks at Business Ethics Magazine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from NPR.
"Blues for Philly Joe"
by Sonny Rollins