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The History of Chatbots

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The idea of creating a machine (chatbot) that had humanlike thought processes has been around for centuries. Scientists, philosophers, and even sculptors were fascinated by the idea of a humanistic automaton. The original chatbots were some you may have heard about before but maybe not all. 

Author Samuel Butler first wrote the idea of a mechanical consciousness in his 1872 science fiction novel, Erewhon. Despite the interest and fascination on the subject, it was not until 1966 when any form of artificial intelligence really took form: ELIZA.

The "First Chatbot" ELIZA

Generally recognized as the first actual chatbot, ELIZA was developed by Joseph Weizenbaum. Named after Eliza Doolittle, a working class character in the play Pygmalion, ELIZA was meant to emulate a Rogerian psychotherapist. It was capable of answering basic questions and asking for users to elaborate on their discussions. For example, if you told ELIZA that you were sad, it would respond with “Why are you sad?” inciting a further discussion and urging you to continue. Unfortunately, the program was not more involved
than this, unable to understand the conversations it was having.

ELIZA was a groundbreaking invention despite its lack of “real” intelligence. Despite only being capable of using pattern matching and substitution methodology to form new sentences, ELIZA would receive an overwhelming response of positivity for its “human-like” conversations; even Weizenbaum’s secretary was taken by the program. It inspired dozens of other chatbots both serious and comedic.

IBM Watson

While not necessarily a chatbot, IBM’s Watson has paved the way for artificial intelligence. It is considered a “question answering machine” and was developed in IBM’s DeepQA project. Watson’s sole purpose was originally to understand questions in natural language and respond to them correctly – all for the opportunity to play on a famous quiz game show.

Jeopardy!

In 2011, history was made when a machine contestant was on a game show. Squaring off against two former champions – one of which that had a 74 game winning streak – Watson was capable of understanding idioms, riddles, and nuances well enough to score
over $50,000 higher than either of the contestants, resulting in the win of a $1 million prize.

Of course, Watson wasn’t always correct, sometimes giving absolutely bizarre responses to questions asked. An example being, “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle.” The response? “What is Toronto?????” - (The correct answer was Chicago.)

Fast-forward six years. Watson has expanded its capabilities, its processing capabilities, and decreased its size substantially (going from the size of a large bedroom to that of a mere three pizza boxes). Now considered a platform rather than a Jeopardy! contestant, Watson is paving the way for enterprises to create more believable virtual assistants, create more accurate reports, and perform intense research. Watson also has a division, Watson Health, which is specifically for the healthcare industry to help doctors identify and diagnose diseases.

the first chatbot graphic

Siri

Siri is an intelligent personal assistant owned by Apple Inc., originally developed by SRI International Artificial Intelligence Center. It was intended to be what they called a “do engine,” which would allow people to utilize the Internet in ways they never had before. Rather than a search engine that would only gather regurgitated information and display it to the user, a do engine was akin to having a conversation.

Capable of scheduling events, booking reservations at local restaurants, utilizing speech-to-text to transcribe your text messages, and more, Siri has become a staple of iOS devices. Siri relies on natural language processing to understand your requests, listening to them and utilizing a complex algorithm to understand exactly what it is that you are looking to answer. It also notices a specific user’s dialect, interests, and preferences so
it can better custom-tailor the results to the user.

Alexa

Amazon’s personal assistant, Alexa, is similar to Siri, but on a different platform. Alexa’s popularity elevated by the use of Amazon Echo devices in many homes. A key benefit of using Alexa is the ability to control multiple smart devices by asking it to access that device’s permissions, such as, “Alexa, turn on the living room fan.”

Alexa has the opportunity to install different “skills” where developers can build different experiences and capabilities for an Alexa-enabled device. Recent additions are even games such as Hunt the Yeti, where your device will describe your situation and you will respond with which direction or action you choose to take – not unlike early text-based RPGs.

Recently, Amazon has opted to make its technology available to the public, allowing developers to access the same tools that powers Alexa. This new opportunity is called Amazon Lex, and it helps developers use voice or text-based chat interfaces for apps.

There’s massive acceleration happening here. The cool thing about having this running as a service in the cloud instead of in your own data center or on your own desktop is that we can make Lex better continuously by the millions of customers that are using it.”

- Werner Vogels, CTO of Amazon

Tay

A social experiment gone wrong, Tay was Microsoft’s attempt at creating a chatbot for Twitter that would interact with users and learn from them. The bot did not even last a day, taken offline only sixteen hours after its first tweet. Why the short stint? Microsoft did not give the bot an understanding of inappropriate behavior.

Within the first few tweets, Tay was spewing racist, sexualized, and politically incorrect messages to other users. Of course, it initially happened due to a few users intentionally feeding it bile and exploiting the “repeat after me” functionality. As Tay was designed to learn from the interaction it had from other users, it began to use them to form individual responses that were just as tasteless. In those 16 hours of being online, Tay had tweeted over 96,000 times.

Microsoft seems to have learned from the PR disaster that was Tay, creating a completely new chatbot as its successor by the name of Zo.

Want to learn more about what chatbots are and what they can do? Download our free ebook, Chatbots 101, and find out!

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Topics: Technology, Chatbots, Artificial Intelligence

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