Saturday, January 31, 2009

Smarter Bots

Alan Turing

Mechanical Toy Factory

Written 22 January, 2009

Smarter Bots

Let’s start with my experience at Mechanical Toy Factory.

No, let’s start with ELIZA.

No, no, let’s start with the Turing Test.

No, no, no, let’s start with Turing himself.

Alan Turing was a British mathematician and cryptographer who is considered by some to be the father of modern computer science. I consider that distinction to be shared by his fellow Brits Charles Babbage (hardware) and Ada, Countess Lovelace (software). In a paper published in 1950, Turing devised a test to determine whether a machine could interact with a human in such a way that the human would be unable to determine if he or she was communicating with a human or a machine.

…a human judge engages in a natural language conversation with one human and one machine, each of which try to appear human. All participants are placed in isolated locations. If the judge cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test.

  -- Excerpt from Wikipedia, The Turing Test

Tragically, public revelation of Turing’s homosexuality ended his brilliant career; he died in 1945 at age 41, most likely by his own hand.

Which brings us to ELIZA. Written in 1966 by Joseph Weizenbaum, ELIZA was a computer program written in LISP (and later translated to BASIC and other languages). ELIZA mimicked a Rogerian therapist

...largely by rephrasing many of the patient's statements as questions and posing them to the patient. Thus, for example, the response to "My head hurts" might be "Why do you say your head hurts?" The response to "My mother hates me" might be "Who else in your family hates you?"

  -- Excerpt from Wikipedia, ELIZA. Chey loves Wiki!

ELIZA has been translated to Linden Scripting Language and is available in Second Life. The shrinkbot at the robot sanitorium on Whimsy Kaboom runs a modified version; I’ve created a full permission followshrinkbot which is available for free to outpatients. To get one, go here. Enter the sanitorium, turn left, follow the ramps on the robot side of the sanitorium to the doc’s platform.

Which brings me to the Mechanical Toy Factory. Hmmm… have I blogged about this already? I’m getting that sense of déjà vu. No matter. I have new info.

The Toy Factory is a brilliant build where avatars can purchase clothing, steam-powered vehicles, mechanical figures, and a brilliant tiny train. It’s fun just to see the place. Go there.

On my last visit there was a new feature— just inside the door stood an avie that would don articles of clothing on command. I tested it— and not only did it respond to my selections by changing clothes, it talked to me as it did so.

The shrinkbot at the robot sanitorium talks to me too, but not like this. I was soon wondering: am I talking to a human emulating ELIZA or an infinitely more sophisticated program that contains ten or so orders of magnitude more information than can be stored in the 64k of memory allowed by the Mono language of Second Life? For instance, I asked the bot (if bot it was), “How much is four plus two?” It answered correctly.

It wouldn’t be that difficult to write a script that would parse Chat for numbers and the words plus, minus, multiple, and divide and perform a correct calculation, but I had spelled the numbers out. No way did Mono listen for every possible spelled-out number—but then again, maybe it listened only to the numbers one through ten; after all, most people wouldn’t ask a question using higher numbers.

My head was starting to spin.

What if, I asked myself, the bot was relaying Chat to an external database which would draw upon terrabytes of information to formulate a response which would then be sent back to the bot in Second Life.

As to whether I as talking to a person: if the store’s owner was hiring real-life people to run the bot, what were the chances the newbie on duty would be clever enough to respond as the bot was responding—like a very smart ELIZA. Not high. To be sure, the owner would have that skill, but surely he or she had better things to do. Although hmmm, maybe the owner was running two avs and switched to the bot only when things started getting interesting.


Months later— today— I was reading Gwyneth Llewellyn’s blog and saw her post about Daden Limited, a company that makes smart bots which draw upon external databases to foment their responses to queries.

Hmmm. Yes! THAT would account for the bot’s behavior.

And so, several months after taking the Turing Test, I’m ready to state WITHOUT EQUIVOCATION that I was talking not to a bot, but to a real live human person.
Even though I’m not really sure.

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