Dr. Richard S. Wallace firstname.lastname@example.org
Fri, 4 Jan 2002 09:56:43 -0800
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2001: an AIML odyssey
What a year it was. ALICE and I began the year broke, wondering how
much longer we could pay the ISP bills, let alone the rent. Like nearly
everyone else's, our funding sources had dried up due to the dramatic
burst of the Internet Bubble.
Then Jon Baer came along and injected a whole new shot of excitement
into ALICE with the launch of program D, bringing our free software up
to date with the latest Java 2 technology, and demonstrating new voice and
speech interfaces. Jon also developed tools to link ALICE to email and
instant messaging for the first time.
Noel Bush and Nika Dubrovsky joined us and I finally achieved my dream
of forming a non-profit corporation to preserve and promote the ALICE
and AIML software. Noel in particular brought a lot of business experience
from one of the former dot-com chatterbot companies. The ALICE A.I.
Foundation was incorporated in the State of California in April, 2001.
Paradoxically, the Internet bust turned out to be a boost for ALICE and
AIML. Unlike companies facing layoffs, the ALICE project actually
attracted a larger number of volunteers. The AIML developer
community grew from around 200 to over 500. As people cast off
their old dead-end business plans, they are looking around for something
new and exciting like AIML. Sadly however, more people have time to volunteer
now simply because they are unemployed.
All around the world, companies began offering AIML products and
services for the first time, and/or deploying AIML bots on their
web sites. These included X-31 (U.S.), Agentland (France),
Dutyfarm (Germany), Smartbot (Germany), Coolware (California),
Thoghtbubble (U.K.), Artificial Solutions (Sweden) and
Archangelis (Belgium). The process of organizing AIML interest
groups for different languages got underway. In particular,
a very active Indonesian AIML group has emerged.
There was nothing like the world of "2001: A Space Odyssey" in 2001, but
ALICE did appear on the web site of the Stanley Kubrick film, A.I.
The movie A.I. was a bit of a disappointment, some say because of
Steven Spielberg's adaptation. But partly due to a clever online game
designed into the marketing plan for the movie, and partly due to the
appearance of the AIML Chatbot on the A.I. web site, this movie has
become the first about which we can say,
"The web site was better than the movie."
In any event the A.I. movie brought thousands of people into contact
with ALICE and AIML, who otherwise would not have heard of her. We
are very grateful to Mr. Spielberg for that. The film also helped us
indirectly by helping to promote the notion of "artificial intelligence"
as a cultural meme. It was great seeing "A.I." plastered all over the
city buses that, one year before, had been plastered with ads for
Ask Jeeves. Over the summer, ALICE began appearing in the press
almost every week.
Unsolicited fan mail was up dramatically this year, thanks in part to
the A.I. movie bot giving out MY email address to anyone who asked it,
"What is your email?" People made all kinds of unbelievable requests
like, could I put them in touch with Haley Osment or Steven Speilberg.
A few people even offered to send me their screenplays. I had to tell
them that we were not affiliated with Dreamworks, Warner Bros. or
Steven Spielberg, it was just the magic of free software at work.
The Foundation went through some birth pains as the community adjusted
to the structures of the new committees and standardization processes.
We free software folks are characterized by strong individualism,
and by the tendency to work alone. In retrospect, all those flame wars
on the mailing lists were somewhat inevitable as we grew from a free
association of autonomous individuals into a larger group that required
more formal structures and policies.
The ALICE and AIML architecture committee released a working draft of
the AIML 1.01 specification. The Pattern Language Committee added
multiple wildcards to the pattern matching language. The AIML
style forum is developing into a useful resource for sharing AIML
programming tips and developments. The biggest committee however is
the membership of the A.I. Ethics mailing list, which debates the
moral and social consequences of bot technology.
Another brief crisis in the early summer seems now like a harbinger
of what was to come. Noel Bush was hospitalized for 12 days in St.
Petersburg, Russia, and for a few days we feared the worst.
With our normal lines of internet communication down, it was
difficult to find out what was happening to him. We spent
quite a few anxious days until Noel was released with a full
Tom Ringate and Ing. Pedro Colla took charge of turning our
free software into a solid reference implementation, fully
compliant with the AIML 1.0 standard. The Foundation thanks
Tom and Pedro for their outstanding contribution. Kim Sullivan
and Noel Bush became the masters of our CVS repository, allowing
multiple developers to simultaneously work on the code for the
Our Board of Trustees was greatly enhanced by the addition of
Brenda Freedman, of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, and
Gene Riccoboni, an attorney based in New York. Amazingly we have
been able to reduce our overhead costs for Board meetings by
conducting 99% of our business online. The same is true for
the standards committees, who have published an amount of work
comparable to a well-funded research institution.
The big event of August was Linuxworld in San Francisco. This
was the Foundation's first public venue. We were part of the
".Org Pavilion", a program whereby IDG donates a booth and
a net connection to nonprofit organizations involved in Linux
and free software. With that donation alone, IDG became the
single largest corporate sponsor of the A.I. Foundation.
In conjunction with Linuxworld, we held our first real-world
Board of Directors meeting in San Francisco. A quorum of
Dr. Wallace, Brenda Freedman, and Noel Bush were present.
The Board successfully met its modest first-year fundraising
goals before the end of the summer.
September 11 was a tremendous shock. The ALICE mailing
lists for a while carried about 50% messages related to
the attacks and the aftermath. The community held together
marvelously, showing remarking tolerance and restraint.
Several of our friends, including Jon Baer and Chris Fahey,
were right there on the ground, so to speak. We also had
the ability to share news reports from many different
countries, which often contradicted each other.
I spent about two weeks in September telling everyone
there was "no way" I was going to get on an airliner and
fly to Europe for the Loebner competition in October,
even if the tickets were already purchased. Gradually
I worked by courage back up and boarded a KLM flight
to Amsterdam on Oct. 9, just as the bombs began falling
The flight proved worth the risk. ALICE was awarded her
second bronze Loebner medal and cash award of $2000.
ALICE was even ranked higher than one of the human confederates,
by one of the human judges. If all the judges did that,
we would have been eligible for the Silver medal too.
The press attention at the London Science Museum was
overwhelming. It was also a great chance to meet up with
Christian Drossmann, David Hammill, Jon Selig, Simon Laven,
Andrew Teal, Hugh Loebner, and all of the Loebner contestants.
Back in San Francisco, there were more press interviews
and even a TV appearance on TechTV Screensavers. The number
of companies working with AIML technology is larger than ever.
Locally two new projects are very exciting: one underway at
Sprint Labs in Millbrae, California, to implement ALICE as
part of a voice-activated "virtual room" demo. Another is
Berkeley-based Franz, Inc., makers of Lisp programming
environments. All over the world, far from Silicon Valley
there are many other companies, large and small, looking
into AIML for the first time.
My research interests drifted back to predicate calculus
and Prolog. Partly inspired by a wonderful book, ENGINES OF LOGIC
by Martin Davis, and partly motivated by the perceived need to
link ALICE with some kind of logic engine, I composed a simple
demonstration program in Prolog and linked it to ALICE. Hopefully
this work will help to clarify some of the debate around the future
of AIML. The AIML community itself has divided into two camps,
the reductionists and the experimentalists, each with a different
vision for the future of the language.
There was increasing anecdotal evidence that ALICE "passes the
Turing Test", at least, as P.T. Barnum said, for some of the people,
some of the time. One woman who threatened to sue us
because she fell in love with a bot, then was heartbroken when she
discovered it was a mere program. Instant messaging proved to be
an ideal platform for AIML, where the natural pace of the conversation
seems to resonate well with the robot banter. Especially in some
cases when the bot initiates the conversation, it seems to take
some people several minutes to realize their chat partner is a machine.
The first order of business for 2002 is another Linuxworld. We
are coming to visit all our friends in New York at the Jacob Javits
Center during the week of January 28. Come on over and have a chat
with ALICE and her human companions.
I think I speak for many of us when I say that we hope 2002 will be
a year of AIML jobs. There are a few people being paid to work on
AIML projects here and there, but the demand is not yet so overwhelming
that we need an "AIML Job Listings" link on our home page. Certainly
no one is getting rich off any type of A.I. technology right now. The good
news is that AIML survived the year, and in fact grew. When the turnaround
comes, we will be well positioned to benefit from the recovery.
Fundraising for the ALICE A.I. Foundation has suffered the same setbacks
affecting many nonprofits since Sept. 11, as the bulk of charitable donations
went quite rightly to those who lost the most from the attacks. But with
the combined effect of the dot-com fallout, many nonprofits are facing tough
times as funding sources dry up. We are hoping to be approved soon by the
Revenue Service for 501(c)(3) status, which will permit U.S. taxpayers
to make donations to the Foundation and simultaneously a deduction on
their tax bill. The 501(c)(3) status will simplify our fundraising efforts.
2001 has been a busy year and so packed with events that I am almost
sure to have forgotten someone's contribution in this essay. We got
a new ALICE logo, we created the basis for an AIML 1.0 standard, we
saw new AIML engines being developed in PHP and Lisp, we produced
documentation, and saw many new AIML applications and demos. Please,
if your work was not mentioned in this short essay, forgive me for
my faulty human memory. Every contribution by every member of the
ALICE and AIML community is appreciated and acknowledged with gratitude.
2001 would not have been possible without you.
In conclusion, I join with many others who are praying for peace
and prosperity in 2002. We have accomplished much in 2001, and demonstrated
our resilience as a community in spite of several personal and global
catastrophes. Let's all try to build on these accomplishments and
strengths as we continue to grow the AIML language and community in 2002.
Best wishes for a happy new year,
Dr. Richard S. Wallace
Chairman, ALICE A.I. Foundation
p.s. Just when you thought 2001 was over, and right after I
transmitted the first version of this message, our alicebot.org
server mysteriously crashed on Dec. 31, 2001. The cause of the
crash is still under investigation. Besides the web site, we lost
all contact with the community for several days, but it was no big
deal. After all we have been through, what's one more crisis?