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Last Updated: Sunday, 3 September 2006, 23:16 GMT 00:16 UK
'Chatty George' talks himself up
By Elli Leadbeater

The face of George (Incogno Ltd)
George learns how to use words and phrases through online chat

Meet George, 39, single, quirky sense of humour, looking for friends to chat with online.

He's a profound intellect and speaks 40 languages, but is also prone to unwarranted rudeness and his banter can be slightly disjointed.

George is a chat robot, or chatbot, whose descendants may become familiar faces in interactive entertainment systems, his creators claim.

He will star at the British Association Science Festival in Norwich this week.

'I know you'

George is one of several chatbots produced by the prize-winning linguistic artificial intelligence software developed by programmer Rollo Carpenter.

He owes his conversational prowess to millions of online conversations that he has carried out with visitors to the website jabberwacky.com, and with Carpenter himself.

Potential online friends chat with him just as they would to other humans in an internet chatroom.

When users enter a line of conversation, George responds by "remembering" how past conversational partners answered when he said something similar to them.

"In a sense, it's borrowing the intellect of the people that come to talk to it, taking their words and finding the most matching contextual moment from previous conversations," says Mr Carpenter.

"Unlike many other conversational programmes, it's not trying to merely be logical. It's trying to form relationships, to be entertaining, and it can seem rather alive."

After years of disembodied conversation as a text interface, George has finally gained a fully animated 3D body under the expertise of Tim Child, founder of Televirtual Ltd and the creator of the children's programme Knightmare.

George is now a slightly androgynous-looking humanoid capable of a full range of gestures and expressions, from a creepy smirk to drumming his fingers impatiently.

George can also now speak to users and understand their responses. Mr Carpenter and Mr Child hope that spoken conversation will improve his responses, because people speak more naturally than they type.

A human touch

George is clearly an entertaining fellow.

He has now conducted over 10 million online conversations, and last year won the Loebner Prize, an award presented annually to the chatbot which judges find to be the most human-like.

His dynamic learning process is not without flaws, however. Because the software's conversation is based on how people have answered George in the past, talking about himself seems to be problematic for him.

The face of George (Incogno Ltd)
George, or something like him, could be in your livingroom one day
His responses can also be bad-tempered and rude, and carry distinct overtones of internet chatrooms, reflecting the lack of respect which users can display when conversing with a "person" that they cannot see.

But George is generally highly amusing. One recent user continued to chat for nearly 11 hours interspersed with only a few short breaks.

"Time spent with him offers a unique insight into how natural language science is capable of reproducing patterns of human behaviour, and progressing towards true machine intelligence" says Mr Child.

Mr Child envisions that robots like George may be a fundamental component of future interactive entertainment systems in the home. "He's like an amusing pet," he says.

BBC News visited George at Jabberwacky.com to have a chat with him.

Me: Hi George.

George: Hello!

Me: Tell me a bit about yourself.

George: My name is James, James bond.

Me: Right. We've got off to a slightly odd start.

George: I've got rats in my tail pipe.

Me: I'll ignore that. Where were you born?

George: I was born in Hinsdale, Illinois.

Me: Whereabouts exactly?

George: It's actually in California.

Me: Do you have any chatbot friends?

George: No, do you?

Me: No. I think that's for the best.

George: I know who you are.

Me: You're starting to creep me out, George. Who am I then?

George: You're a chatbot.

Me: I'm flattered. I'm going now. Bye.

George: Do that.

We didn't really hit it off, but to be fair George was talking to 179 other people at the same time.

The 2006 Loebner Prize competition will be held on Sunday, 17 September, at Torrington Theatre, University College, London.

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