HAPPENINGText: Mark Griffith

Early chatterbots, such as Weizenbaum’s Eliza from the 1970s, were simpler to build because they can exploit the imagination of the human interlocutor. The human initiates new lines of discussion, introduces new words – which the chatterbot can then mirror back at the person, embedding them in familiar grammatical structures. In other words, those chatterbots can ask humans intelligent-sounding questions about what the human just said.

Eliza – a spoof psychoanalyst – would respond to sentences like “I hate my father” with convincing answers like “Why is that? Tell me more about your father.”

Szegedy-Maszak, Langh, and Fernezelyi could not do this – since _both_ sides of the conversation are computer-generated. their technical challenge was trickier. How to keep a real-sounding conversation going when both sides of the chat are randomly assembling grammatical sentences from limited strings of words?

A lovely installation, both soothing and yet thought-provoking, ‘Smalltalk’ makes us ask what we have to hear before we really think there is a mind behind the words? In fact, they undermine the value of Turing’s famous AI test. If a human is part of the conversation, the illusion of intelligence is easier, not harder, to create.

Two chatterbots, as the designers predicted, have a harder time sounding intelligently conversational, than one – the much simpler ELIZA already managed to fool plenty of humans back in the 70s. These two – however witty the scripts they have been given to play with (“I am a program pretending to be a human pretending to be a robot” says the one in glasses at one point) – will fool fewer visitors than simple old Eliza.

The best part is how the exhibition looks. The green-tinted silent faces, and the black-and-white chatting (rapidly switching back and forward from night to day in the background behind the talking face, depending on when a particular word was taped) make it memorable and mysterious.

If you pass through Budapest go and set them off yourself. 12 noon to 6pm until March 25th, they’re waiting in that room in the Buda Castle District for you, quietly smoking, hoping you’ll pick something for them to talk about.

Smalltalk: Chatterbots Talk With Each Other
Date: January 25th, March 25th, 2001
Open: 11:00 – 18:00
Place: C3 gallery
Address: Hermina út 22, H-1146 Budapest
Tel: +36 1 488 7070

Text: Mark Griffith
Photos: Courtesy of C3 © the artists

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