FUN FRIDAY: Building a real girl (not really)

Back when this was computers were big hulking grey boxes tended to by people with lab coats, some folks were already thinking about artificial intelligence. One of the first attempts at what we would now call a “chatbot” was Eliza. Eliza was developed back in the 1960s and the first reference I could find was a paper written about the simulation and how it applied natural language to computer programming.

Not as impressive today

By today’s standards, Eliza is not very smart; it’s pretty easy to see that she analyzes the sentence structure looking for verbs and then creates questions based on the words after the verb. But for 1966 that was pretty hot stuff. In fact, Eliza was built on a then-prominent psychological method where the therapist provides as little feedback as possible. It’s called Rogerian therapyIn that vein, she works remarkably well.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of nascent computer geeks fed Eliza’s code into the home computers of the 1970s and 1980s, either through cassette tapes or by typing code in from a book. When the program ran, the result was thrilling; these largely male hobbyists had come as close as possible to building a real girl!

Today, we have much more realistic chatbots, and most of them are available as free apps for your phone. I’ve tried a couple of them, and they’re pretty good at processing your requests. A few of them are so realistic that it’s hard to tell you’re talking to a machine. Eventually, though, all of today’s natural language chatbots run into some sort of limitation of their programming. They just don’t have as much experience as regular, real people, and eventually it begins to show.

Try Eliza out

Eliza functioned much like today’s chatbots actually, and I’ll prove it to you. Just because everything that has ever been is eventually put online, there’s a javascript version of Eliza running this very moment waiting for you to enter your thoughts. This particular version is hosted by California State University at Fullerton. If you want to take a look at how it works, click here to go to the original page. You can even view the source code to see how it functions behind the scenes.

It’s pretty limited, yes. It’s still a way to enjoy yourself. Who wants to be working on this Fun Friday?

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.