Whatever Happened to Eliza?

by John C. Dvorak

Eliza was a computer program that cropped up on early desktop computers and had in interesting following in the late 1970′s and early 1980′s It was a simple program designed to feign being a counselor by mostly reiterating what you’d say to it back at you in the form of a question as if it was having a conversation.

It was developed by Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer scientist at MIT and the information regarding Eliza was published in 1965 by the Association for Computing Machinery in a paper called ELIZA – A Computer Program for the Study of Natural Language Communication Between Man and Machine, It was supposedly named after the character Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.

The original program ran on a teletype and was later ported to CRT-based systems. When this program was put on desktop machines it enjoyed a faddish burst of popularity as a novelty. Weizenbaum himself was taken aback by how many people would get seriously involved with the program and actually have a conversation with the machine. In his 1976 tome, Computer Power and Reason, he relates how his secretary got into the program and actually asked Weizenbaum to leave the room — for privacy!

Of course this kind of thing took place in the early days of computers and during the introduction of interactive computing. Obviously nothing like this would occur during the days of batch programming. As computers were hyped over the previous 20 years as “electronic brains” it was easy to see how people could begin to think they were having a conversation with an entity. After all, thanks to interactive computing, it was responding!

Since the original Eliza numerous improvements have been made to the program. Curiously the original program is still available and numerous websites have a version running on the server. (A good place to see an Eliza emulator is at . Most recently some discussion of psychoanalytical software-based counselors has been openly discussed.

And this leads us to where Eliza has really taken today’s computer users: BOTS. “Bots” is short for robots and actually refers to specific kinds of computer code that is designed to interact with people as though it were a person. The most notable bots are to be found roaming the Internet specifically on the IRC and AOL.

Bots, in general, come in a wide variety of types. And it should be noted that not all are offspring of Eliza. But most are. A typical non-Eliza bot tends to be a misnomer. An example is the spam bot which is called a bot but is really a crawler program which goes from site to site looking for email addresses to plop into a database.

The true progeny of the original Eliza are actually termed chatterbots. There is an enormous underground of people who program the various chatterbots. Many IRC channels will ban users who are caught using these things since they become a nuisance quickly. A primary use is so users can stretch their availability online. Most “ops” (the early joiner of a channel who controls the channel activity) on IRC channels, for example, use a bot to hold their place in a room. You can even message the bot and hold a conversation for a while. Other bots are just used to send a message to someone telling them its a bot and they are not available for chatting. These are all over the IRC, even where they are banned.

Sometimes you may run into a gamebot. These are chatterbots that are designed to run trivia games online. The bot is pre-programmed with questions and then runs the game, keeps score and awards the winners. In most cases you would think that it was a person doing the work.

AOL was once plagued with chatterbots promoting phone sex. If you are in a chat room you may suddenly be messaged by a supposed user who starts making lewd suggestions to get you into a conversation. Often it takes more than a few back and forth comments to be certain that you are chatting with a bot and not a person. Apparently those people who are not aware of bots can be taken in by them despite the sometimes ludicrous comments made by the things. Some years back I did a whole column for Boardwatch magazine where I saved a conversation I had with a bot. (And, yes, I knew it was a bot!). If you know its a bot with which you are interacting then you can amuse yourself by asking crazy questions and making wild comments just to see how the bot responds. It can be hilarious.

For a complete summary and actual bot code, there may be no better site on the web than The Simon Laven Page at http://www.simonlaven.com/. Starting out a couple of years ago to promote a few chatterbots the site now has dozens of bots available for download. Also Lavin explains aspects of the sub-bot universe. He categorizes chatterbots into seven categories: classic chatterbot, complex chatterbot, friendly chatterbot, teachable bot, neurostudio bots, non-English bots and alternative bots. Under alternative bots there is a classic modern variation of Eliza called Dr. Mystik which is notorious for finding ways to never answer a question, but to keep you asking.

The grassroots real world work being done in this field will eventually lead to the talking computer, I’m sure of it. And it all began with Eliza.

Link:
Whatever Happened to… archive