Bianca Bosker recently wrote an interesting piece for Huffington Post on the alleged Twitterbot @Horse_ebooks. This isn’t your typical twitterbot tale. It turns out that almost everyone believed the tweeter behind @Horse_ebooks was a spambot, and yet the innocent, uncanny cleverness and wit of the automated tweets drew in lots of followers. But then it was revealed that the bot was actually a real person, or two real people. Followers were devastated.
Bosker draws comparisons between the @Horse_ebooks scam and the mechanical Turk robot of 1770. Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Hungarian inventor, developed a turban-wearing robot that could supposedly play chess. The inventor traveled around with the mechanical Turk and delighted crowds with the machine’s game-winning prowess. For forty years or so, the robot had crowds fooled. But eventually the robot was revealed to be a hoax, having a hidden compartment where a human could operate the machine without being seen.
Bosker postulates that people are disappointed when such supposed technological advances are shown to be fake, because we want to believe that machines can transcend their limits and become more human. Bosker also sites chatbots, such as Joseph Weizenbaum’s Eliza and the AOL Instant Messenger bot SmarterChild as evidence that people are willing to be hoodwinked by machines posing as humans. She doesn’t mention dating chatroom bots that prey on lonely singles, but I suppose such date bots fall into the same category.
In another article on the people behind the @Horse_ebooks hoax, a Gawker report reveals the team’s odd behavior and other bizarre projects they were involved with that played on user expectations and emotions.
What does all this really say about the future of virtual agent technology? Does it indicate that our conversational software doesn’t really have to be all that great to make people happy? I suppose that depends on what we’re expecting. If we’re interacting with a mobile personal assistant like Siri, we want it to be adept at understanding our questions and giving us the right answers. But we really don’t expect it to have a sense of humor. If it utters anything that even hints at being funny or quirky, it delights us. So maybe robots designed to help seniors, such as those under development by Hoaloha Robotics, don’t have to be all that talented at conversing. They need to understand commands, but even the most marginal capabilities in the areas of humor and empathy could be enough to win over hearts. At least to start out with…