BELL, the charming chatbot at Innocentenglish.com
The other day, I tried chatting with a robot called BELL. She's one of the A.L.I.C.E. chatbots developed by artificial intelligence specialist Dr. Richard S. Wallace to interact with humans. Now, after years of learning, these chatbots are really good, and you can actually practise English with them. Like skilled conversationalists, they are programmed to use techniques we know from cognitive psychology, such as asking questions to make a conversation partner feel comfortable and start talking. The robots then learn from the humans they speak to, adding new responses to their repertoire and checking the new language they record against what they already have in a database. They also express empathy. This makes them sound almost human. Almost.
But BELL and I got off to an uneasy start:
Human: Hi, there! How are you?
BELL: Hi. Do you prefer books or TV? I'm fine, and how are you?
Human (puzzled): Books, actually.
BELL: Then perhaps you are a category C client.
Human (even more puzzled): What is a Category C client?
BELL: Category C clients are "critics" or "computer experts" who can't (or don't) suspend their disbelief about ALICE.
Strange. Why had she asked me about books before responding to my "How are you?"? And why was she analysing our relationship? I mean, we'd only just met! She was reacting to what I had said, as I was saying it, so she got my meaning wrong. In her place, I would have reacted to the small talk first. She was getting the words and grammar right, but the conversation wrong. She reminded me of a highly intelligent but socially inhibited nerd in an IT lab. Since I happen to like nerds, I was hooked.
There is a whole field of lingustics devoted to how we interact when we talk, called pragmatics. There's much to be discovered about how we communicate online, too. To find out how our conversation continued, and what BELL's responses teach us about the complexities of communicating in English, do this week's exercise on the next page.
Anne Hodgson (human)
Dear Ms Hodgson,
There appears to be a glitch in answer 6.
To me the explanation seems to contradict the answer.
Could you please have a look at it.
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