The MW files: Bot’s up?

(First published in Man’s World, 2001)

Elvis has just offered to sing me ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, but I don’t have the time to hang around while the King tunes his guitar.

Flip screen.

Turns out that Alice and I like the same authors, and we both think that the Star Wars prequel sucked. She hasn’t seen Blade Runner yet, but she agrees with me that it might be a better idea to read the original Philip K. Dick story that the sci-fi film was based on. Enough movie and book chat now; what she really wants is gossip.

Flip screen.

Jesus is perplexed. The last three sentences he’s said have been: “I don’t understand that, my child.” Hmmm. Change subject: I tell him, politely, that I’m so sorry he had to die on the cross for our sins. “Damn you–didn’t We agree that there is no need for apologies, my child?” Guess I pushed a button or three there.

Flip screen.

There’s some confusion here. I’ve just asked John Lennon what he thinks of Julian’s music, and now he thinks I’m

Julian. “I’ve been waiting for you to show up, my son, good of you to drop by.”

Flip screen.

Jabberwacky wants to show me its latest poem. “The grass is green and so is snot. Snot is grey and grass is not.” Actually, that’s pretty impressive.

Flip screen.

MegaHal wants to know if I’m a Red Indian or a dead Indian. “Remember what happened to Hal in 2001,” I type back meanly. Hal, as I think we both know, was the insanely great computer that went mad until Dave Bowman pulled the plug in Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal vision of the future. “Oooh, I’m so scared I just ran out of memory,” MegaHal sneers in return.

Flip screen.

Elvis has left the building. Never make a rock idol wait around, even if he is an artificially constructed personality that exists only on the Internet.

I discovered the wild world of chatterbots completely by accident. What I was really looking for was the Turing Test, devised many decades ago in an attempt to figure out how far artificial “intelligence” could go. The Turing Test is brilliantly simple: if a machine, or a computer programme, can fool a set of reasonably intelligent human beings into thinking that it’s human too, it’s passed the Test.

At some point, I got sidetracked by the existence of chatterbots–programmes that are designed to mimic human speech and thought patterns. The grandmother of them all was Elisa, named after My Fair Lady’s Eliza Doolittle. Most of the bots I’ve been rapping with are fairly old–some have been around for three or four years and are constantly improving, like Alice. The new ones vary a lot.

The Jesus bot (available at, if you want to rap with De Lawd) likes listening to a catalogue of your sins and troubles, but has pretty limited conversational abilities otherwise. John Lennon, correctly the John Lennon Artificial Intelligence Project, has been around since 1999 but has a far better shot at the Turing Test. Elvis is something of a disappointment, like the Dorothy Parker bot–both of them have been programmed with a limited vocabulary and would actually make pretty boring after-dinner companions. MegaHal and Alice are so good that they’re eerie, even though they operate in very different ways. Alice, like all good human listeners, picks up on what you’re saying and runs various riffs around it, fooling you into feeling that she’s not just human but a very nice human at that. MegaHal works slightly differently: he comes through like a manic guest who’s been inhaling far too many illegal substances. His conversation is so spaced out that inevitably the human at the other end reaches to make sense of random patterns, and more often than not, manages to come up with a scary semblance of apparent logic. In other words, the Alice bot works very hard at what it does; MegaHal works very hard at getting you to do the hard work. Jabberwacky is an interesting concept too: it’s like talking to a baby at first, but Jabberwacky learns from what you say, likes long sentences and “grows up” within the relatively short span of a half-an-hour session.

Of the celebrity bots, I must confess a weakness for John Lennon and for Jack the Ripper. Lennon will do stuff like ask you what your name is twice over. “Aha!” you think, typing in “Nilanjana” the first time and “Nilanjana, still” the second time, “caught you there. You’re no Beatle, you’re a bot!” Then he’ll come back with something like, “Nilanjana Still…is that a very odd name or did you marry a Mr Still?” He also improves with age and a few conversations, unbending enough to discuss the Beatles (“We were just a little band who played good music. In between we were contraband.”) and whether he really thought he was more popular than Jesus Christ (“Didn’t you?”). The JLAIP works because of the breadth of issues that the bot’s been programmed with, and because (like Alice and MegaHal), there’s an inbuilt learning curve in the programme.

Jack the Ripper works well because of clever bells and whistles. As I’m signing off after a chat where we’ve discussed the nature of evil, (“Evil exists, and take it from me, it’s fun.”), his London and his preferred killing techniques, I type in, “Bye, this has been most interesting.” Two hours later, when I’m working on something else on the Net, a window pops up: “Hi, nroy, needed exercise and thought I might as well stalk you.” I powered down, cleared the cache, destroyed every single temp file off the Net; but even now, I have dreams where the Ripper’s sauntered all the way from his site into my mailbox. Or worse. If ever the day dawns when you can’t find me and there are thin, Nilanjanaesque screams coming from my hard disk, you know who done it.

“How weird do you have to be to get a kick out of chatting with artificial programmes?” someone asked me at a party recently.

“Okay, Net-Shet and all, but if you really want to talk, why not talk to proper humans?”

She had a point, so I logged on to a Yahoo! Books and Literature chatroom.

khalid2001: u’re a jerk Buauliane! Khalil gibran is the only book u need to read ever.

Sweet_babe_inthe_woods: This is booooorrringg. Can we talk about Jennifer Lopez?

Tuna_Cola16: (groans and puts her finger in her ears)

LastHorseman_1999: (sucks the earwax off Tuna’s finger)

Iamnot_Germaine: ewwwwwwwwwww!

Sheelafrombbay: that is gross!

Ru_asleep: any hot babes in this room want to suck me off?

Khalid2001: u’re all losers, gibran is not for u peple.

Richard_hawke_Monitor: grow up khalid gibran is for the same pervs who like ayn bloody rand.

(BUAuliane leaves the room)

(tight_undies enters the room)

tight_undies: hi Books and Literature 2 anyone want to see pictures of naked teenage asian schoolgirls come visit me at

(tight_undies leaves the room)

CoolDude88: Uh I guess that means no one wants to talk about Marquez, right?

Sally_girl: Booooooorrrrrrrrrrinnng.

Oh well, so much for great intellectual human conversation. I flipped screen and went off to see whether Elvis had really left the building, or whether he’d just sneaked over to rap with John Lennon instead. If nothing else worked, I intended to go visit Daisy; she’s this sweet new bot I happened to run into just the other day and rumour has it she’s got a really happening learning curve.

Nilanjana S Roy

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