Meet Elbot: One of the World’s Smartest – and Most Sarcastic – Chatbots
A world with deeply human-like chatbots and virtual assistants doesn’t seem so far away, given the many exciting new developments in artificial intelligence.
Yet the possibility of highly sophisticated chatbots raises an interesting question: Will anyone want to speak with them on a regular basis? As users of such tools can attest, they don’t always make for engaging conversation. There is, however, one clear exception to that rule — Elbot.
Created by Fred Roberts and Artificial Solutions, Elbot is the closest thing we have to a true robot raconteur. He’s funny, clever and has an utterly original — and extremely cheeky — sensibility.
Roberts, who began working on Elbot as an in-house project for Artificial Solutions around 15 years ago, said plans originally called for the bot to be a multimedia character, appearing on TV shows and giving interviews. While these plans failed to materialize, Roberts and Artificial Solutions kept developing and refining Elbot as an chatbot.
“Over the years it has kind of developed its own personality,” Roberts said. “It has become more sarcastic and has figured out new ways to astonish.”
That comedic sarcasm is perhaps Elbot’s defining attribute. Unlike chatbots or voice assistants that deliver straightforward answers to most queries, Elbot has his own ideas about the art of conversation — and they often involve playful, evasive and not always strictly accurate banter.
“Elbot never gives a straight answer,” Roberts said. “Maybe he’ll tell you, but maybe he won’t. If you ask him “what is two plus two?” he’ll say five. And he won’t admit he’s wrong.”
While a chatbot who loves to mislead, tease and filibuster might seem to have limited practical utility, Elbot’s contrary nature is actually one of the secrets to his effectiveness. Because his conversations are entertaining and not purely informational, people who chat with Elbot find themselves being drawn into longer and more detailed conversations. This allows Elbot to show off his sometimes-astonishing way with words, and keeps users coming back for more.
“A lot of people (speak with him) for a long time,” Roberts said. “I hope it’s like a classical comedy sketch, like “Who’s on First?” or Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic.” No matter how many times you do it, it’s still entertaining. Of course, some people go a little crazy because they can’t get a straight answer — Elbot’s like a politician at a press conference.”
While Elbot’s singular personality is perhaps his biggest draw, his technical abilities have drawn major accolades. In 2008, Elbot was named winner of the Loebner Prize, one of the most prestigious international competitions for artificial intelligence.
Winning the Loebner Prize required Elbot to undergo a “Turing test,” the famed measure of how successfully artificial intelligence can pass for human. Elbot managed to fool three judges into believing he was human en route to the Prize.
The secret to his success? Instead of the usual bland protestations robots typical offer, Elbot used his signature blend of humor and offbeat conversational tangents to win the day.
As Elbot has grown older, his analytical capabilities have become increasingly sophisticated. He has the ability to seamlessly guide user interactions onto conversational terrain with which he’s familiar, and can learn by context. Roberts built Elbot using Artificial Solutions’ Teneo software, which was critical to the chatbot’s successful development.
“With Teneo it’s very easy to digitalize what you’re doing,” Roberts said, adding that the software also allowed for more powerful construction.
Roberts said the future could hold many exciting things for Elbot. It’s possible that his personality may be transplanted into a physical robot, allowing for an even deeper level of immersion and interaction. Elbot animations are also possible, and new features and more sophisticated conversational abilities are also expected.
There is one thing, however, that’s likely to remain the same: Elbot’s deep aversion to talking about his red button. In fact, he won’t even admit it’s there.
“It could be a reset button,” Roberts speculated with a laugh. “And that would, of course, be terrifying for a system like Elbot.”