At SpeechTek 2014, I had the opportunity to sit down with Pandorabots’ Chief Science Officer Dr. Richard Wallace. Wallace is legendary in the chatbot community as the inventor of the popular AIML (Artificial Intelligence Markup Language) script and the creator of A.L.I.C.E., a highly awarded chatbot that’s been the recipient of three Loebner prizes. Wallace has been extremely busy over the past couple of years. Not only has he been working on a major upgrade to the Pandorabots website and hosting service, but he’s completed a huge overhaul of the open source AIML script that’s now available as AIML 2.0. Included in the AIML 2.0 release is a completely updated, more polished version of the ALICE chatbot content. This treasure trove of existing conversational content is available to anyone who wishes to create a chatbot that takes advantage of AIML 2.0 and the Pandorbots platform.
So what’s the new Pandorbots website like? The first thing to note is that the site is still in beta, so you may encounter a few minor glitches. When you visit the site, though, you’re greeted by a very polished, professional looking single page application that provides access to the chatbot development platform and an extensive tutorial. The Pandorabots team always supplied good documentation, but the new tutorial is super handy and very thorough. There’s really no excuse to sit on the sidelines if you’re interested in building a conversational bot.
The new development platform has been dubbed the Playground and you can quickly sign up for access using one of several popular email or social networking accounts. The playground is a slicker version of the old development environment, but it contains all of the features of its predecessor, as far as I could tell. The new user interface provides a somewhat more intuitive menu for accessing the various features needed by botmasters. As with the old platform, the new interface includes an automated training capability. The training feature allows you to teach your chatbot correct responses as you’re conversing with it.
You can also access all of the chat logs from the Playground and make changes to your bots’ responses from inside the logs. If you want to create, modify, or upload .aiml files, you can still do that too. For more experienced botmasters, there are additional advanced features. If you’re ready to share your bot with the community, you can publish it to the Clubhouse.
Note that if you had a previous account on Pandorabots, all you need to do is sign in from the new Homepage and you’ll be routed directly to the old user interface, where you’ll see a list of your existing chatbots. If you want to transition to the new Playground to enjoy its features and fresher look and feel, you’ll need to create a new account and then manually port your existing AIML files over.
In my discussion with Dr. Wallace, he indicated that a marketplace for the exchange of chatbot content, capabilities, and features would be coming soon. This seems like a great idea. It looks like this exchange, along with an API that will enable you to link your chatbot to an app or to other services (a la CallMom), is in the works. Based on information in the FAQ section, it seems support for Chatscript and other chatbot development platforms is also anticipated.
What about AIML 2.0? What makes it superior to the original version? For one thing, AIML 2.0 and A.L.I.C.E. 2.0 support the mobile apps CallMom BASIC and CallMom. The BASIC version runs completely natively within your device without needing a connection to the web. AIML 2.0 facilitates mobile apps with something called out of band (OOB) functions that allow the bot / intelligent assistant to access the features of a phone, such as making calls or setting reminders. AIML 2.0 also extends the capability of AIML by adding new, more powerful wildcards, adding commands that allow external services to be accessed, and providing a slew of other goodies.
But Wallace is very deliberately striving to keep AIML simple. In his view, chatbots are the domain of literary, creative types. Programmers are certainly welcome to create chatbots and they may excel at it. But the creative English-major types are often the ones who come up with truly imaginative and rich personalities that become the most convincing conversational partners (think Eugene Goostman). For this reason, Wallace is dedicated to keeping AIML a tool that is easily accessible to non-programmers.
The new Pandorabots is a great resource for independent web developers, marketing consultants, or other service providers who might want to offer their customers the addition of a virtual assistant, either on their website or as a standalone app. I can imagine many small businesses wanting to experiment with virtual assistants to engage customers and provide access to things like weekly specials, or answers to frequently asked questions. Pandorabots and similar platforms make it so easy to create and maintain a chatbot that small business owners can even do the work themselves, or outsource it to a creative family member. Got a college graduate malingering around the house in between the occasional job interview? Put him or her to work building a corporate virtual assistant for your business! Chances are good that they’ll actually enjoy the work.