Talking points

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A recent PartiallyClips strip illustrates a technique that we might call "associative dialogue":

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

The tailor's algorithm, obviously, is to use the customer's questions as queries into a database of quotations.

This technique has been used to great advantage by generations of chatbots. The one whose design I know most about is the "extended chat" mode of Cobot, described in C. Isbell, M. Kearns, D. Kormann, S. Singh, P. Stone, "Cobot in LambdaMOO: A Social Statistics Agent", AAAI 2000:

Any utterance directed towards Cobot that is not recognized as a request for social statistics becomes a candidate for the following process. Words in the incoming utterance are matched to words appearing in sentences in the documents, assigning to each sentence a weight based on the number of matching words. […] Cobot randomly chooses a sentence to utter according to the distribution defined by the weights.

As the authors explain,

The effectiveness of this approach depends on the choice of documents. We first fielded the well-known Unabomber Manifesto by Theodore Kacynski, a lengthy, didactic essay on the evils wrought on society by science, and the industrial revolution The resulting response was immediate and dramatic […]. The new functionality resulted in endless conversation […] and allowed users to attribute to him all manner of intelligence and attitudes.

They may have gone too far when they programmed Cobot to choose his contributions alternately from the Unabomber Manifesto and the script for Planet of the Apes:

cobot: There is good reason to believe that many primitive societies subjected people to less pressure than the European society did, but European society proved far more efficient that any primitive society.
cyberat: That's what they want you to think!
cobot: Tell me who and what you really are and where you come from, and no veterinarian will touch you.
cyberat: Veterinarians!!!
cobot: The Roman system of urban sanitation was forgotten, so that until rather recent times did the sanitation of European cities that of Ancient Rome. [sic]
Fawn_Guest: cobot's conversation topics just get weirder and weirder.
cobot: In spite of every sign I'm an intelligent being meaning no harm, you continue to hate and fear me.

The version of this algorithm that politicians are trained to use is better. Trivially, they have an implicit understand of IDF weighting; and more seriously, they also have a highly non-uniform prior distribution over their talking points. It remains true, needless to say, that "The effectiveness of this approach depends on the choice of documents".

Of course, politicians are not the only participants in this enterprise who sometimes try to reduce dialogue to the reproduction of a predetermined script.

[P.S. Yes, the artwork is the same in all three panels. And in fact it's not even original. That's the basic premise of the strip, and it adds a little something extra in this case.]


  1. David Letterman said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 9:15 am

    …but far more importantly, I have to protest the use of the same drawing three times; it is an outrageous abuse of my good…

  2. David Letterman said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 9:18 am

    (Well if he can use the same drawing three times,then surely I can use the same comment three times?)

  3. John Cowan said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 9:48 am

    You can try.

  4. Mark P said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 9:52 am

    The chatbot is interesting to me because we are dealing with a relative who has fairly severe cognitive decline, but who can make casual conversation that seems relevant and responsive and that makes the person seem unaffected. But with this person, like the chatbot, there are occasional responses that are jarringly irrelevant and unresponsive. When I try to understand what this person's interior world is like, it seems almost like a chatbot retrieving stock responses based on the words in the question.

  5. JS Bangs said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 11:23 am

    Here I am, sitting in my office, laughing my head off at cobot's dialogue. Why can't my coworkers be so amusing?

  6. David Eddyshaw said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 11:28 am

    The tailor's eventually apropos final aphorism is a bit reminiscent of the Ascians in Gene Wolfe's Severian books, who communicate entirely in Little Red Book style slogans, but have managed to creolize it into an actual language. (Hey, it's just a story …)

    There's a bravura section in one of the books where an Ascian tells a story in this way with someone translating as he goes …

    "In times past, loyalty to the populace was to be found everywhere . The will of the group of seventeen was the will of everyone."

    —- "Once upon a time …"

    "Let no one be idle. If one is idle, let him band together with others who are idle too, and let them look for idle land. Let everyone they meet direct them. It is better to walk a thousand leagues than to sit in the house of starvation"

    —- "There was a remote farm worked in partnership by people who were not related."

    "One is strong, another beautiful, a third a cunning artificer. Which is best? He who serves the populace."

    —-"On this farm lived a good man."

    and so on.

  7. Bobbie said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 2:20 pm

    From now on, I converse only in messages I find in Chinese fortune cookies!

  8. Josh Millard said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 4:17 pm

    Seize upon a new business opportunity this week, Bobbie.

  9. Irene said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

    Again Mr. Zwicky closes the comments to one of his posts. In the next posting, he explains the meaning of the headline "All Blacks lock rubbishes Wallabies poor form line".

    One of the reasons this headline is so inscrutable is the absence of apostrophes indicating the possessive on both team names. Had the headline read "All Blacks' lock rubbishes Wallabies' poor form line", it would have been clear that lock is not a verb and that rubbishes probably is.

  10. Irene said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 4:36 pm

    David said, "The tailor's eventually apropos final aphorism is a bit reminiscent of the Ascians in Gene Wolfe's Severian books, who communicate entirely in Little Red Book style slogans, but have managed to creolize it into an actual language".

    There is an episode of Star Trek, the Next Generation in which an alien speaks using only references to his culture's important historical events.

  11. Alan Shaw said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 10:31 pm

    The Star Trek episode:

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