Thursday, 3 July 2008

Talking to the Machine

Since the 1960s, a number of computer programs have been developed which attempt to allow computers to talk with people. Eliza was programmed by Joseph Weizenbaum who worked in the Computer Science Department of MIT: he described Eliza as a tool which was intended “to play (or rather, parody) the role of a Rogerian psychotherapist.” Rogerian therapists rephrase their clients’ statements into questions and bounce them back again, a relatively easy conversation form for a program to take. Parry, on the other hand (programmed by Kenneth Colby of the Psychiatry Department at Stanford University), was deliberately created to “be” paranoid and managed to convince 47% of psychiatrists that they were speaking with a living psychiatric patient, rather than with a computer program. When Eliza and Parry were eventually introduced they produced reams of disturbing discussion before their programmers pulled the plug.

Best of all of the “talking” computer programs was Racter. While it could not get by in the every-day world, its utterings unintentionally bore close resemblance to those of schizophrenics, to such an extent that it was difficult to pin down exactly how Racter’s conversation differed from a chat with a psychiatric patient.

Racter reached its highest point in 1984, when Warner Books published a book of discussions, stories and poems “written” by Racter . After spending ten minutes conversing with Racter, I am convinced that the text was heavily edited between generation and publication. Here’s one of Racter’s poems:

Bill sings to Sarah. Sarah sings to Bill. Perhaps they
will do other dangerous things together. They may eat lamb or stroke
each other. They may chant of their difficulties and their
happiness. They have love but they also have typewriters.

That is interesting.

Interesting or not Racter was not called upon to write any more books, and is now available to download for free from the internet. While today’s chatterbots can speak far more fluently than Racter and its contemporaries, Racter remains the only computer program that I know of to have been credited with full authorship of a book.

You can find out more about chatterbots here. And if you'd like to talk with Eliza, Racter or Parry they are all out there on the internet, waiting for you to find them.

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