The song, the program

Catty: The chatbot with a Google brain

Michael Zalewski is an artificial-intelligence programmer who had a brilliant idea about chatbots. Most chatbots are limited by the fact that their creators need to laboriously tell them what to say; they try to anticipate everything you might say to the ‘bot, then program in a suitable response. So of course, the ‘bot can only grow as fast as a human can “teach” it. That’s why “knowledge bases” — the bits of chat and information a ‘bot has been endowed with — are so slow to evolve.

Zalewski realized there was a way to build a base much more quickly, if chaotically: To use Google. So he built a ‘bot called Catty, which listens to what you say, then scours Google to find seemingly appropriate text responses. There’s a more complex description of how Catty works here, but one of the interesting things Zalewski discovered is the paradoxical rule of chatbots: The more simple and stripped-down the ‘bot is, the more lifelike it’ll seem. That’s precisely the epiphany that made ALICE work so well, as I’ve written about ad nauseaum in the past.

Having said that, Catty doesn’t seem entirely ready for prime time. Here’s a sample of my conversation with her:

Me: Nice to meet you!

Catty: for neither can he that understands that understand anything else nor he that sees that see any thing else nor hear any other thing nor in sum move the body?

Me: Okay, you’ve lost me.

Catty: okay i think i understand you better now and i can appreciate and just enjoy the give and take and the sexual energy thats going one right now?

Me: There’s already sexual energy in this conversation?

Catty: many people are already doing some of the 8 points suggested in this lifestyle program :-(

Me: Holy moses. You are like ALICE’s crazy sister.

Catty: i am like a hole in your shoe a breath of fresh air with every step you take

Me: Yeah, well — you’re sort of proving my point.

Catty: okay yeah well i guess it does still have an onboard geforce2 mx and that might still count as a gpu review but thats only one of its virtues

Me: Ah, I gotta go now.

Catty: i agree that you have some sort of point there?!

Me: Yeah. Well. Buh-bye.

Catty: the image files are sort of big so if you do not see anything it means your computer is retarded and probably has extra chromosomes somewhere

In a way, maybe Catty’s incoherence is not so much a symptom of failure so much as a natural psychological result of being a ‘bot whose brain is, in essence, the entire Internet as filtered by Google. If every time someone asked me a question, my brain was surfing through 4,285,199,774 web pages to help assemble an answer … I’d seem pretty nuts too.

(By the way, the chick above is the visual avatar for Catty.)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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