The Surprisingly Long History of Chatbots

If you’ve ever used the internet, chances are you’ve found yourself speaking to a chatbot at some point. A chatbot is, as the name might suggest, a computer program which is capable of carrying on a conversation. Today, you can use a chatbot to order dinner, buy insurance, schedule a ride, and even check your bank account. Only a few decades, ago, however, chatbots would have seemed like the product of science fiction. Where did chatbots come from, and how did they become so omnipresent in the user experience?

Where did chatbots come from?

In 1950, Alan Turing—known as the father of computer science—posited a simple test to measure artificial intelligence. If an observer could read a conversation between two parties—knowing only that one of them was a computer—and not be able to tell which of them was the human, then the computer could be considered genuinely intelligent. In 1964, a scientist at MIT developed a program called ELIZA that could mimic the patterns of human conversations. While the program was convincing to many people, it fell far short of passing the Turing test. In 1972, a psychiatrist at Stanford created a program called PARRY that was intended to reproduce the speaking patterns of a person with schizophrenia. This program became the first to pass the Turing test, making it the first modern chatbot.

When did chatbots become more convincing?

The 1980s and 1990s saw much more serious efforts to make more convincing chatbots, as researchers worked to find ways to make their responses more realistic. Jabberwacky, a program introduced in 1988, was able to store and learn from its previous conversations, thus making its interactions all the more humanlike. A.L.I.C.E., which went public in 1995, was able to carry on a conversation by accessing thousands of possible responses. While none of these programs came close to consistently sounding like a real person, they made it possible for companies to begin using them to interact with customers for improved user experience.

What’s next for chatbots?

The first chatbot to earn national attention was probably IBM’s Watson, a question-answering bot that won $1 million on “Jeopardy!” in 2011. Watson beat the show’s two all-time human champions. Later that year, Apple introduced Siri, a “virtual assistant” designed to provide individualized responses to spoken questions from iPhone users. In 2014, Amazon introduced its own virtual assistant, Alexa. Today, numerous websites greet visitors with a message from a chatbot that can handle the most frequent queries. Chatbots have become an inescapable part of our world. This makes it all the more certain that researchers will continue to work to make them smarter and more convincing.

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Justyn - Digital Marketing Manager, Special Projects
Justyn Dillingham

Digital Marketing Manager, Special Projects

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