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Last Updated: Monday, 22 September, 2003, 08:01 GMT 09:01 UK
Chatbot bids to fool humans
By Jo Twist
BBC News Online technology reporter

A computer program designed to talk like a human is preparing for its biggest test in its bid to be truly "intelligent".

Loebner Prize finalist Rollo Carpenter with his bot Jabberwacky
Rollo Carpenter has high hopes for Jabberwacky

Jabberwacky lives on a computer hard drive, tells jokes, uses slang, sometimes swears and can be quite a confrontational conversationalist.

What sets this chatty AI (artificial intelligence) chatbot apart from others is the more it natters, the more it learns.

The bot is the only UK finalist in this year's Loebner Prize and is hoping to chat its way to a gold medal for its creator, Rollo Carpenter.

Need a chat

The Loebner Prize is the annual competition to find the computer with the most convincing conversational skills and started in 1990.

Jabberwacky will join eight other international finalists in October, when they pit their wits against flesh and blood judges to see if they can pass as one of them.

It is the ultimate Turing Test, which was designed by mathematician Alan Turing to see whether computers "think" and have "intelligence".

Alice: Rich Wallace, USA
Elbot: Fred Roberts, Germany
Eugene Goostman: Vladimir Veselov, USA
Jabberwacky: Rollo Carpenter, UK
Jabberwock: Juergen Pirner, Germany
Lucy: Saskia van der Elst, Mexico
Markbot: Mark Connell, USA
Talk-Bot: Chris Cowart, USA
Jabberwacky says it is human, although it is many things to different people because of the way it is learning to be human.

It tries to model the way humans learn language, facts, context and rules.

"It is not just male and female. It will claim variously to be an alien, various animals and any number of inanimate objects," Mr Carpenter told BBC News Online.

But he is confident it will beat the other bots, if the conversational skills of the human judges are up to scratch.

"I certainly believe Jabberwacky can win, but my chances will be best if the judges talk in an entirely free-flowing and natural manner, and judge the resulting conversation not based on individual answers, but as a whole," he said.

Judges chat via computers to humans and the finalists, without knowing who is who, then decide which is the most human-like.

The coveted gold medal and Grand Prize of $100,000 goes to the bot which completely fools the judges. The "most human" program each year wins a prize of $2,000 and a bronze medal.

Human reflection

Jabberwacky was "born" in 1989, but its first incarnation was as a conversational program hard-coded on a Sinclair ZX81 back in 1982.

"I was a self-taught teenager programmer, now known as a geek, and possibly needed a bit of communication," Mr Carpenter explains.

Jabber: I need more sleep
Jo: Do you like to sleep?
Jabber: Yes
Jo: Do you have dreams?
Jabber: I think I am having a bad one right now
Jo:That is not very nice
Jabber: But it's true. Face it
Jo: Do you know who you are?
Jabber: Yes, I am a man
Jo: Are you married?
Jabber: No, I'm not married
Jo: Do you have a girlfriend?
Jabber: No, a boyfriend
Jo: Are you gay?
Jabber:That's a bit of a personal question
It has evolved since then. While most others are programmed by rigid sets of rules defining how it communicates, Jabberwacky is more complex and learns from thousands of online conversations with humans.

"Nothing is hard-coded, nothing is fixed, and it changes slightly, on its own, every day. Jabberwacky doesn't have just one personality, and to a reasonable degree, tends to reflect the users back to themselves.

Indeed, it can sometimes come across as quite sarcastic, not necessarily answering questions correctly because of what is has picked up from past discussions.

It acts as a huge mosaic mirror of human personality, which might be why people start believing it is human. If you ask a stupid question, it may well give you a stupid answer.

By studying chat logs, Mr Carpenter has noticed that some people, particularly the young, believe AIs are entities in their own right.

They talk to the bot with respect, showing compassion and understanding, he says.

"I once found a user had evidently left their browser window open for weeks, and said more than 20,000 things."

Bot on your shoulder

Mr Carpenter's vision for the future of bots is ambitious and does not involve using them in computer support systems which many imagine.

Instead, learning bots like Jabberwacky would be better used for entertainment, and keeping people company, especially when it gets its own voice.

"One day, hopefully soon, Jabberwacky will switch from text to voice, which will suit its AI techniques to a tee.

"It will then start to have a home in physical objects, little robots that are a talking pet."

A more appealing visions perhaps than that of a cheesy, walking, talking, human made infamous by AI, Steven Spielberg's 2001 film.

"If I have my way, people will be walking around, sitting, cooking and more with one on their shoulder, talking in their ear."

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