The History and Future of Chatbots
Above. Watch Chatbots: Past, Present, and Future
Robots and the human imagination
Robots have formed part of the human imagination since time immemorial. While the first artificial humans were powered by supernatural means (think of Hephaestus’s mechanical servants in the Odyssey or the golems of Jewish lore), science became the new magic that would power the 17th-century automata which emerged in the far East and Europe.
However, robots were only propelled to the forefront of the human imagination following early 20th-century mass industrialization and technological progress, which generated future-focused literature, art, and film (the robots in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis are testimony to this shift). This is the same cultural environment which nourished science fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov, whose works focused almost exclusively on human-robot interactions.
Imagination feeds science; science feeds the imagination
Was it a coincidence that Alan Turing was carrying out scientific work on artificial intelligence at the same time Asimov was publishing his collection of short stories, I, Robot? The imaginative world of art and literature often nourishes scientific discovery, just as the world of science often inspires artistic invention. Though Turing and Asimov belonged to different fields, both were actively imagining what it would be like to interact with robots. These preliminary imaginings marked the beginning of artificial intelligence (AI) and have resulted in nearly 70 years of research. Here are the highlights:
THE HISTORY OF CHATBOTS
1950: Alan Turing writes “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, formulating the Turing Test. What is the Turing Test? Essentially, it is a conversation-based approach used to determine if a computer program is indistinguishable from a human being. The test involves a human interrogator and two unknown subjects (one is a computer, the other a human being). By typing questions to both test subjects, the interrogator attempts to determine which of the subjects is a computer and which is human. The computer will pass the Turing Test if the interrogator cannot tell the difference between the human subject and the computer.
Fun fact: The Turing Test was inspired by a party game called the “Imitation Game”, which aims at determining the gender of two unknown guests. The 2014 film of the same name (starring Benedict Cumberbatch) detailed the life, genius, and struggles of Alan Turing.
1966: Joseph Weizenbaum publishes the program ELIZA, considered to be one of the first chatbots. ELIZA achieved the illusion of intelligence by recognizing key words and phrases from user input and responding accordingly, using prewritten scripts. One of these scripts, DOCTOR, enabled ELIZA to assume the persona of a Rogerian psychologist.