By James Vlahos
It’s 1982, and I’m 11 years old, sitting at a Commodore PET computer terminal in the atrium of a science museum near my house. Whenever I come here, I beeline for this machine. The computer is set up to run a program called Eliza—an early chatbot created by MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum in the mid-1960s. Designed to mimic a psychotherapist, the bot is surprisingly mesmerizing.
What I don’t know, sitting there glued to the screen, is that Weizenbaum himself took a dim view of his creation. He regarded Eliza as little more than a parlor trick (she is one of those therapists who mainly just echoes your own thoughts back to you), and he was appalled by how easily people were taken in by the illusion of sentience. “What I had not realized,” he wrote, “is that extremely short exposures to a relatively simple computer program could induce powerful delusional thinking in quite normal people.”
At age 11, I am one of those people. Eliza astounds me with responses that seem genuinely perceptive (“Why do you feel sad?”) and entertains me with replies that obviously aren’t (“Do you enjoy feeling sad?”). Behind that glowing green screen, a fledgling being is alive. I’m hooked.
A few years later, after taking some classes in Basic, I try my hand at crafting my own conversationally capable computer program, which I ambitiously call The Dark Mansion. Imitating classic text-only adventure games like Zork, which allow players to control an unfolding narrative with short typed commands, my creation balloons to hundreds of lines and actually works. But the game only lasts until a player navigates to the front door of the mansion—less than a minute of play.
Decades go by, and I prove better suited to journalism than programming. But I am still interested in computers that can talk. In 2015 I write a long article for The New York Times Magazine about Hello Barbie, a chatty, artificially intelligent update of the world’s most famous doll. In some ways, this new Barbie is like Eliza: She “speaks” via a prewritten branching script, and she “listens” via a program of pattern-matching and natural-language processing. But where Eliza’s script was written by a single dour German computer scientist, Barbie’s script has been concocted by a whole team of people from Mattel and PullString, a computer conversation company founded by alums of Pixar. And where Eliza’s natural-language processing abilities were crude at best, Barbie’s powers rest on vast recent advances in machine learning, voice recognition, and processing power. Plus Barbie—like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and other products in the “conversational computing” boom—can actually speak out loud in a voice that sounds human.
Picture: Sjschen at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons