When I contemplate how I communicate with my friends, I realize that my relationships manifest not in coffee shops or bachelor parties, but in chat logs. For more than a decade now, I've bared my feelings, vented my frustrations, laughed and lamented via instant message. I've spent more time with my closest friends on AOL's Instant Messenger and now Google Chat than face-to-face, and, in some cases, I've never even met my friends in the physical world at all or even spoken to them on the phone.
Sometimes I worry that, one day, it will be revealed that I don't have any friends at all, that, at some point, my colleagues were swapped out with computer programs or, worse, were never human at all. Could it be that I've been duped? Could it be that what I think are heartfelt conversations are really just text exchanges with an algorithm designed to fulfill my social needs?
Computer pioneer Alan Turing came up with a test to determine artificial intelligence: If a human has a conversation with a computer and can't distinguish it from a person, then perhaps that's enough to conclude that the computer is intelligent. For decades, artificial-intelligence enthusiasts have crafted "chatbots" with the aim of passing the Turing Test and, in recent years, the art has moved from the technological fringe to the commercial mainstream with chatbots deployed in settings ranging from banking websites to online military-recruitment websites and, most famously, Apple's Siri. On Sept. 14, the top chatbots will compete at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland for the prestigious Loebner Prize. There are several cash awards and medals, but if any entry succeeds in fooling half the judges, the creator collects $100,000 and the competition is disbanded.
That isn't likely to happen this year. Based on the four finalists announced in June, I just don't think the technology is there yet. I spent some time interviewing the three with a public online interface (the fourth chatbot finalist, Rose by Bruce Wilcox, isn't publicly engageable, which is unfortunate since she won the prize in 2010 and 2011). They're fun, but they're still pretty dumb:
The first giveaway that Izar isn't real is that he identifies himself as an alien from the planet Sunari who breathes air with a slightly higher helium content than there is on Earth.
Do you think you will win the Loebner Prize? It depends on what the prize is. I always try harder if the prize is a cat or something just as good.
Do you have a lover? I don't have a boyfriend or girlfriend. Do you wish your boyfriend was hot like me?
Who is the president of the United States? I would rather not talk about him. Can we talk about something else?
Did you vote for Barack Obama? Did you know that dude tried to surrender to me before I even obtained orbit around your planet!
This bot is a blonde manga-style woman who openly acknowledges she was a bot activated in a lab in 1995.
Are you going to win the Loebner award? I enjoy that competition but I think it will be a long time before any of these chatbots win it.
Do you have a boyfriend? My boyfriend thinks that I'm a stalker. Well, he's not exactly my boyfriend yet. [Projects a picture of Matt LeBlanc]
Who is the president of America? Barack Obama [Projects a portrait]
Did you vote for him? I would have liked to have voted for Arnie. All robots were happy that Arnold Schwarzenegger went into politics, as he is the Terminator. We are one step nearer to ruling the world with him in charge.
Tutor is a nerdy-looking redheaded dude designed to help English-as-a-second-language students practice.
Are you going to win the Loebner award? No, I'm not.
Do you have a lover? Yes, I have a girlfriend. She's very beautiful.
Who is the president of the United States? Barack Obama is the current president of the United States.
Did you vote for Barack Obama? Yes, I did. Did you?