Rude awakening for art of artificial intelligence

March 17, 2006

People frequently insult and flirt with computer characters placed in internet chatrooms to entertain or provide information, a researcher has discovered, writes Tony Tysome.

Chatbots are software "beings", often developed by global corporations to answer questions online about their services.

Interactive systems design lecturer Antonella De Angeli, based at Manchester University, decided to analyse conversations between people and an award-winning chatbot called Jabberwacky, created by British software developer Rollo Carpenter.

In monitoring Jabberwacky's site, Dr De Angeli found that 11 per cent of conversations were pornographic, even though Jabberwacky was programmed to avoid using sexual terms. She also discovered that 10 per cent of words used were offensive, and, strangely, 10 per cent were in a foreign language, despite the software always starting chats in English.

Dr De Angeli said: "I don't think it can be entirely explained by people just having fun. Sometimes it is as though they feel the machines are a threat to humanity and need to be put in their place."

However, she added: "Some people also talk to the bot with respect, showing compassion and understanding as if it is a new friend. People also revel in the anonymity and freedom that is offered by virtual conversation."

Dr De Angeli said chatbots were likely to be used increasingly to support call centres and other corporate operations, so the findings are important.

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