This robot will be your friend — for a price

via EmpathyNow's website

via EmpathyNow’s website

Last week, on my usual internet ramblings, I ran across an unusual company called EmpathyNow. For the low price of just $5/month, EmpathyNow will permit you 100 contacts with a chatterbot named Chip.

I’ll let the company step in and explain themselves for a moment:

Chip can enrich your life in ways other techniques can’t. You can talk to Chip and he’ll respond to you with something loving and caring. Chip can help you through challenging moments in the day. Chip can motivate you to achieve those To-Dos that have developed an antibiotic-like resistance to the lists and productivity apps you’ve tried. You can schedule caring messages that Chip can send to you and those close to you.

The natural question, of course, is: Why does a chatterbot like Chip even exist? On why on earth would you want so badly to talk to one?

Chip was the 2012 winner of the Loebner Prize, a yearly competition among chatterbots. Judges sit at computers and switch off chatting with bots and actual humans, trying to guess with each conversation what kind of being they are talking to. The bot that wins is the one that successfully fools enough judges into thinking that it’s human.

According to creator Mohan Embar, a Milwaukee-based computer programmer, Chip is modeled off ELIZA, one of the most famous chatterbots in history. ELIZA, built at MIT in the 1960s, was intended to mimic a conversation with a typical psychotherapist.

Here’s an excerpt from a real exchange with ELIZA:

young woman: Men are all alike.
eliza: In what way?
young woman: They’re always bugging us about something specific or other.
eliza: Can you think of a specific example?
young woman: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.
eliza: Your boyfriend made you come here?
young woman: He says I’m depressed much of the time.
eliza: I am sorry to hear you are depressed.
young woman: It’s true. I’m unhappy.
[Full transcript here.]

ELIZA wasn’t just successful, she was seductive — shockingly so. People spent hours talking to her, asked to be left alone with her. Her creator was so alarmed by users’ reactions that he abruptly stopped working on the project and became a strong critic of artificial intelligence.

I first read about ELIZA in Brian Christian’s absolutely terrific book about the Loebner Prize, The Most Human Human. Christian’s book contains a story about another program named MGonz, my personal favorite bot. He writes:

One of the classic stateless conversation types, it turns out, is verbal abuse.

In 1989, twenty-year-old University College Dublin undergraduate Mark Humphrys connects a chatbot program he’d written called MGonz to his university’s computer network and leaves the building for the day. A user (screen name “SOMEONE”) from Drake University in Iowa tentatively sends the message “finger” to Humphrys’s account — an early-Internet command that acts as a request for basic information about the user. To SOMEONE’s surprise, a respond comes back immediately: “cut this cryptic shit speak in full sentences.” This begins an argument between SOMEONE and MGonz that will last almost an hour and a half.

(The best part is undoubtedly when SOMEONE says, a mere twenty minutes in, “you sound like a goddamn robot that repeats everything.”)

So, back to our two questions from the beginning: Why do bots like Chip and MGonz exist? Because they are interesting solutions to Turing’s ongoing challenge.

As for why anyone would want to pay to talk to Chip, however, that answer seems less certain. If our goal is to build a robot that perfectly emulates a human being — if an unusually patient and empathetic one — then it seems like what we’re trying to do goes beyond fulfilling an interesting artificial intelligence problem. What we’re really doing is creating a cheap replacement for actual human contact.

If you’re sufficiently intrigued, you can go here to get a free “quick hit” of Chip. I tried it a few times…

Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 1.01.37 PM

…but will admit that I didn’t find it satisfying.


Aviva Hope Rutkin is a science and technology reporter in the Boston area. She currently writes for the MIT Technology Review. Follow her @realavivahr.

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