The recent claims that Google’s chatbot LamDA had an existential discussion with a senior software engineer have grabbed the world’s attention. Chatbots have hit the headlines over the past few days after a Google engineer claimed that the firm’s most advanced system has developed human-like feelings, or become sentient. A chatbot is a computer program deliberately designed to mimic and respond to human speech.
Google employee Blake Lemoine claimed that talking with LaMDA is like talking to an “8-year-old kid that happens to know physics”. Lemoine is convinced that LaMDA is a sentient, human-like intelligence. This isn’t the first time a chatbot has caused such a dramatic debate.
But just how lifelike are the best on the market? One thing for sure is that these intelligent virtual assistants are now found everywhere. From Amazon’s Alexa to Apple’s Siri, or a retailer’s website, an estimated 80% of us now use chatbots – whether they are responding to us verbally, or via written text. Chatbots are now said to be the fastest-growing way in which brands communicate with their customers.
The first-ever chatbot, created in 1966 by computer scientist Professor Joseph Weizenbaum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was comparatively simple by today’s standards. But to users like Professor Weizenbaum’s secretary, the bot, named ELIZA, seemed to “understand” them. Almost 60 years later, chatbots are now widely used.
You may have encountered them in communicating online with telecommunication companies, banks, airlines, and shopping sites. They are usually found in a little box-shaped icon that pops up in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, asking you to type a question. And some of the answers can feel quite human.
The technology underpinning chatbots have evolved since the 1960s. The seminal advancement was the invention of data-driven algorithms – otherwise known as machine learning algorithms or artificial intelligence (AI). AI enables the kind of ‘conversations’ that LamDA has had with humans.
Chatbots are essentially computer programs that interpret written or spoken language and provide appropriate responses. Many programming languages and technologies can be used to build them. Regardless of approach, chatbots are of two basic types: ‘rules-based’ chatbots, like ELIZA, and ‘smart’ chatbots, like LaMDA. All of this however doesn’t mean customer service chatbots are free from risk.