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What Is A Chatbot?

A chatterbot - also commonly called chatbots, chat bots, talk bots, etc - is a computer program that simulates intelligent conversation. Most chatbots simulate human-like conversation although there are a significant minority that simulate non-human intelligences.

Most chatterbots communicate with their human partners through a simple text interface, although some include speech recognition and text-to-speech features. Most use a sequential chat dialogue where the chatbot says something, then the human, then the chatbot, etc. Systems where dialogue can overlap and the participants interrupt each other are much rarer.

The first and probably most well-known chatbot was ELIZA written in 1966 by Joseph Weizenbaum to simulate a therapist. This introduced a lot of the techniques now common in chatbots to simulate understanding such as: general questions, rephrasing statements as questions and referring back to previous statements. ELIZA later inspired the award-winning ALICE chatbot constructed by Dr Richard Wallace of the ALICE AI Foundation.

Most chatbots use some form of Natural Language Processing (NLP), matching the user's input against a databases of words and phrases. They then select a response based on that input and (in more advanced cases) on the context of the conversation. Such responses are usually either "canned" phrases or templates into which relevant variables can be slotted. There are also a limited number of "learning" chatbots such as Nick and Jabberwacky that don't start with a hard coded response set but pick up what the users say. These are sometimes built using neural networks and connectivist models.

Are chatbots actually "intelligent"? That is a question that produces much debate and the answer is probably more a matter of philosophy than science. A sufficiently advanced chatbot could in theory pass the basic Turing Test - however many modern workers in the field of AI reject that as a measure of intelligence.

Why Is A Chatbot?

Motives for building chatbots vary. Some builders are interested in the Artificial Intelligence aspect, some use them as a research tool, some see it as a programming challenge, others like the creative aspect of designing a "personality". Some chatbots are used for entertainment, others for business and commercial purposes, for example to interface with customers.

Bots are sometimes deployed in chatrooms, on IRC and across messenger systems such as Yahoo and MSN. There are even chatbots appearing in virtual worlds such as Second Life. Most of these are benign however some are - by accident or design - a positive nuisance.

How Is A Chatbot?

So, how do you build a chatbot? The most common tool is AIML - Artificial Intelligence Markup Language - and there are a number of interpreters and other programs available to download or buy. AIML can be difficult for a non-programmer to understand so sites such as Pandorabots exist to make the process of bot-building more intuitive. For those who are less interested in using standards a variety of systems such as The Personality Forge can be used.

The nice thing about such systems is that they remove the need for chatbot builders to be programmers, allowing them to concentrate on building the personality of their bot.

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