[In] artificial intelligence ... machines are made to behave in wondrous ways, often sufficient to dazzle even the most experienced observer. But once a particular program is unmasked, once its inner workings are explained ... its magic crumbles away; it stands revealed as a mere collection of procedures ... The observer says to himself "I could have written that". With that thought he moves the program in question from the shelf marked "intelligent", to that reserved for curios ... The object of this paper is to cause just such a re-evaluation of the program about to be "explained". Few programs ever needed it more.
“It’s hard to balance that urge to just dogpile the latest thing when you’re feeling like there’s a land grab or gold rush about to happen all around you and that you might get left behind. But in the end quality wins out. Everyone will be better off if there’s laser focus on building great bot products that are meaningfully differentiated.” — Ryan Block, Cofounder of Begin.com
ALICE – which stands for Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity, an acronym that could have been lifted straight out of an episode of The X-Files – was developed and launched by creator Dr. Richard Wallace way back in the dark days of the early Internet in 1995. (As you can see in the image above, the website’s aesthetic remains virtually unchanged since that time, a powerful reminder of how far web design has come.)
The idea was to permit Tay to “learn” about the nuances of human conversation by monitoring and interacting with real people online. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for Tay to figure out that Twitter is a towering garbage-fire of awfulness, which resulted in the Twitter bot claiming that “Hitler did nothing wrong,” using a wide range of colorful expletives, and encouraging casual drug use. While some of Tay’s tweets were “original,” in that Tay composed them itself, many were actually the result of the bot’s “repeat back to me” function, meaning users could literally make the poor bot say whatever disgusting remarks they wanted.
However, as irresistible as this story was to news outlets, Facebook’s engineers didn’t pull the plug on the experiment out of fear the bots were somehow secretly colluding to usurp their meatbag overlords and usher in a new age of machine dominance. They ended the experiment due to the fact that, once the bots had deviated far enough from acceptable English language parameters, the data gleaned by the conversational aspects of the test was of limited value.
A.L.I.C.E. was written within the frame of Artificial Intelligence Markup Language (AIML), an open standard for creating any kind of chatbot, also developed by Wallace. Most AIML interpreters are offered under a free or open source license. Therefore, many “Alicebot clones” populate the internet, having been created based upon the original implementation of A.L.I.C.E. and its AIML knowledge base. This video shows a speech as given by dr. Wallace about A.L.I.C.E., AIML and the chatbot history in general.
Previous generations of chatbots were present on company websites, e.g. Ask Jenn from Alaska Airlines which debuted in 2008 or Expedia's virtual customer service agent which launched in 2011. The newer generation of chatbots includes IBM Watson-powered "Rocky", introduced in February 2017 by the New York City-based e-commerce company Rare Carat to provide information to prospective diamond buyers.
“Beware though, bots have the illusion of simplicity on the front end but there are many hurdles to overcome to create a great experience. So much work to be done. Analytics, flow optimization, keeping up with ever changing platforms that have no standard. For deeper integrations and real commerce like Assist powers, you have error checking, integrations to APIs, routing and escalation to live human support, understanding NLP, no back buttons, no home button, etc etc. We have to unlearn everything we learned the past 20 years to create an amazing experience in this new browser.” — Shane Mac, CEO of Assist