Ways To Be More Interesting in Conversation

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Or not… Today's Dinosaur Comics:

Mouseover title: "bud for ONCE you're not replying to my every input with "PARITY ERROR""

T-Rex's conversational gambits are in the tradition of ELIZA, though less superficially cooperative. As Wikipedia tells us:

ELIZA is an early natural language processing computer program created from 1964 to 1966[1] at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory by Joseph Weizenbaum. Created to demonstrate the superficiality of communication between humans and machines, Eliza simulated conversation by using a "pattern matching" and substitution methodology that gave users an illusion of understanding on the part of the program, but had no built in framework for contextualizing events. Directives on how to interact were provided by "scripts", written originally in MAD-Slip, which allowed ELIZA to process user inputs and engage in discourse following the rules and directions of the script. The most famous script, DOCTOR, simulated a Rogerian psychotherapist (in particular, Carl Rogers, who was well-known for simply parroting back at patients what they had just said), and used rules, dictated in the script, to respond with non-directional questions to user inputs. As such, ELIZA was one of the first chatterbots and one of the first programs capable of attempting the Turing test.

A working version of DOCTOR can be found here.

It's interesting that the Wikipedia entry for ELIZA uses "chatterbot" ("ELIZA was one of the first chatterbots") instead of "chatbot", which is now much commoner:

Wikipedia's Chatbot entry starts with a disjunction of the terms ("A chatbot or chatterbot is a software application used to conduct an on-line chat conversation via text or text-to-speech") but then uses chatbot throughout, except for a couple of references to others' usage. The entry tells us that

The term "ChatterBot" was originally coined by Michael Mauldin (creator of the first Verbot) in 1994 to describe these conversational programs.

And the now-dominant "chatbot" is apparently later, though it's less clear who coined it when. The OED gives these citations, with the note that the 1994 quote is "perhaps not a fixed collocation":

1994 alt.bbs.first-class 28 Dec. (Usenet newsgroup, accessed 18 Mar. 2020) I know that Cindy's Online Games allows people to play certain games in chat with people, but I'd like to create my own specialized Chat ‘Bot’.
1998 Internet World (Nexis) 1 June A few companies hope ‘chatbots’ will be able to answer enough questions to make themselves valuable.
2019 J. Shane You look like Thing & I love You ii. 37 Even when customers stick to the prescribed topic, chatbots will struggle if the topic is too broad.

I imagine that usage of "chatbot" was encouraged by the growth of the term "chat room", which the OED traces back to 1989:

1989   T.H.E. Jrnl. (Nexis) Feb. 68   BBS ‘chat rooms’, which allow up to 23 people to converse in real time, will be regularly used.
1996   N.Y. Daily News (Electronic ed.) 29 Dec.   He knew the pair became acquainted in the chat room, an independent site on the World Wide Web devoted to a vampire fantasy role-playing game.
2000   Guardian (Electronic ed.) 10 Feb.   Whenever you enter a live chat room for the first time..it's hard not to be momentarily transfixed by the torrent of text messages rushing down your screen.

It's also probably relevant that chatter has traditionally negative connotations (OED "Incessant talk of a trivial kind;"; Merriam Webster "to talk idly, incessantly, or fast") that chat has evaded (OED "Familiar and easy talk or conversation"; Merriam Webster "to talk in an informal or familiar manner").

Anyhow, Weizenbaum's 1966 ACM paper ("ELIZA—a computer program for the study of natural language communication between man and machine") doesn't use either word, and I'm pretty sure that his 1976 book (Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation) also doesn't.



  1. Philip Taylor said,

    November 21, 2021 @ 12:42 pm

    I and my peers at Westfield College (University of London) made considerable use of Eliza in the early-to-mid '70s, and a friend, the late Colin Taylor, wrote an Eliza-like program in Pop-2. But what I find most interesting in your article is your use of the phrase "which is now much commoner:". For me, this would have to be "which is now much more common:", since in my idiolect "commoner" is a noun rather than a comparative, meaning one who is neither royalty nor a member of the aristocracy or peerage. By contrast, I have no problem with "commonest" as a superlative.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    November 21, 2021 @ 12:51 pm

    Incidentally, in the linked version of "Doctor", what does the author mean by "By then, ELIZA was a software tween herself" ? Is "tween" a contraction of "between", and regardless of the answer, what is the sentence intended to mean ?

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    November 21, 2021 @ 1:13 pm

    Without seeking to monopolise this thread (I realise that Sunday evening UK time is not the most popular for forum interactions), I have another question, again related to the linked "Doctor" prose. The author writes "as with Siri, Alexa and other operating system disembodied voices, feel free to conjure up your own idea of what ELIZA looks like". Now I know that there are some people (of whom I am not one) who refer to Siri, Alexa, etc., as "she / her", but is there really anyone who visualises what Siri / Alexa look like ? If so, I am staggered beyond belief.

  4. Matt said,

    November 21, 2021 @ 1:57 pm

    @Philip: “Tween” refers to a child who is not quite yet a “teen”, but is getting beyond the younger child years, also referred to as pre-teen, so basically the 8-12 range.

    It is definitely a formation based on “between”, in that they are somewhere between “childhood” and “teenager”. I have heard it most commonly in marketing when talking about who their products target, and perhaps some of those “kids grow up so fast today” type of articles.

    Guessing it started in the marketing world, but Wikipedia or the OED probably know more.

  5. David Marjanović said,

    November 21, 2021 @ 3:58 pm

    is there really anyone who visualises what Siri / Alexa look like ? If so, I am staggered beyond belief.

    I don't, but I've met people whose imagination is definitely vivid enough for this.

    There are also people who imagine different voices for what they read. Various subjects or turns of phrase remind them of specific people, and then they imagine that person's voice.

  6. Anthony said,

    November 21, 2021 @ 5:46 pm

    A colleague of mine, now retired, would refer to our Fortran compiler as "he" every single time. "You can do this because he's expecting an integer" and so on. I never thought to ask him what he thought Mr. DEC Fortran looked like.

  7. david said,

    November 21, 2021 @ 6:36 pm

    If I recall correctly internet chat rooms began with the development of the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) protocol in 1988 which supported multi-user text-based conversations. Wikipedia's IRC page suggests that bots were being tested on in 1992.

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 21, 2021 @ 10:22 pm

    This "tween" may have a hint of a connection to Tolkien's use of it in The Lord of the Rings. Hobbits have longer lives and mature more slowly than humans. The sentence is "At that time Frodo was still in his tweens, as the hobbits called the irresponsible twenties between childhood and coming of age at thirty-three."

  9. /df said,

    November 22, 2021 @ 1:06 am

    Mention of ELIZA in the context of a comic obviously recalls the story about the business executive who believed that he was in an (olde worlde 1960s) online chat with one of his programming staff to arrange access to the computer to demonstrate a program to potential customers, but had accidentally connected to ELIZA, eliciting its full range of canned responses:

    Do you think that I can use the computer this morning?


    I might be able to make some additional Telecomp sales.


    My prospective customers have never seen a demonstration of the system.


    Of course it does.


    This is ridiculous.


    Is there any reason why I can't use the computer now?


    Now, it is said, the executive phoned the programmer, asking:

    Why are you being so shitty with me?

    And the programmer, of course, responded:


  10. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 22, 2021 @ 2:47 am

    @John Friedman:

    Fifteen or twenty years ago, when I first encountered "tween" in the sense of someone about ten or twelve, it considered me considerable confusion because I assumed the Hobbitish definition.

  11. Terry Hunt said,

    November 22, 2021 @ 2:52 am

    @ Philip Taylor – with regard to visualising speaking 'virtual assistants', I have never interacted with one, but from experience as an on-site helpdesk operator, I know that I invariably formed a mental picture of any person whose voice I heard on the telephone (often completely at odds with their subsequently encountered actual appearance, which caused amusing mental disconnects). Consequently, I'm sure that if I were to interact with any computer application that spoke in a plausibly human manner, I would involuntarily form a mental picture of a human to match the voice, even while knowing that no actual person was producing it. In any case, I gather that Siri (and presumably other similar programs) uses recordings of actual voice actors, so I would in essence be visualising one of them (probably inaccurately).

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    November 22, 2021 @ 6:01 am

    Terry — yes, I hahad ve exactly the same experience, based on working on the GPO Telex desk after completing my apprenticeship. It came as quite a shock when I finally met one of the people with whom I had, until then, spoken only on the 'phone. But as far as Siri, Alexa, etc., are concerned, to me they are asexual automatons and therefore devoid of conjectured personality, appearance, etc.

  13. Doug said,

    November 22, 2021 @ 7:11 am

    I recall reading that when Alexa was first introduced, some users asked "her" questions like "Alexa, what are you wearing"? and "she" has therefore been programmed with responses to such things.

    This suggests that some people do visualize what Alexa looks like, and don't regard "her" as an asexual automaton.

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    November 22, 2021 @ 7:15 am

    Frightening, Doug !

  15. Joe said,

    November 22, 2021 @ 11:18 am

    Let's not forget the most (in)famous chatbot from Microsoft: Tay!

  16. rpsms said,

    November 23, 2021 @ 1:32 pm

    I have always suspected that David Lynch used an Eliza-like system to script the short film "What Did Jack Do?", perhaps a system trained on "noir films."

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