Geek Humor: The one where I taught my PC to speak.

Back in 1995, I was working for AT&T in their massive Marketing department. I hadn't yet achieved management level and spent most of my days creating mind-blowing multimedia presentations to amuse the executives and try to get funding for various advertising campaigns. My manager liked to nurture my inner geek and rewarded me with a killer computer setup (for the time) to thank me for the millions of dollars I'd helped the organization secure for their various projects. (I may be over exaggerating my importance here for the sake of dramatic effect.)

With my new Intel 486 CPU and fancy SoundBlaster sound card, I felt like I could rule the world! The SoundBlaster came with some additional software goodies - The PC Therapist and an integrated text-to-speech program. PC Therapist was an artificial intelligence program that took the concept of ELIZA (a program written in 1966 that simulated a Rogerian therapist) to astonishing new levels. PC Therapist was smart! It learned from your conversations with it so that it could respond better in the future. Add in that cool HAL 9000 sounding computer voice and wow, it was pretty damn impressive.

After wasting spending time for days chatting with my PC, I started to wonder what I could DO with this cool little program. Could I teach it to respond to certain key words? Yes, I could. Could it learn about and respond to questions regarding AT&T's current Marketing strategies? Well, sorta. Initially I thought about building a whole multimedia presentation around my little AI chatbot, but my PC wasn't exactly portable and there was no way to put all that data on a disk (folks over 30 will recall how little those diskettes could hold).

So I decided to prank my coworkers instead. If I saw someone I knew coming down the hall, I'd turn up the sound on my PC and start "talking" to PC Therapist (I'd say what I was typing so that it sounded like I was really talking to my computer.) They all fell for it! I explained that my computer only understood my voice because of how I programmed it, so they would have to type in their questions manually (naturally I had a microphone on my PC, for visual effect). Word spread that Becky had taught her PC how to talk and people flocked to my office to speak to it.

I'd come back from lunch and find coworkers showing people I didn't know how they could carry on a conversation with my PC. It was hilarious! All these conversations, unbeknownst to my fellows, were being saved to a text file on my hard drive. I could scan through the file and read what PC Therapist had been talking about all day. It was amazing what people would reveal to this program.

Sadly, I had to end my little prank. I wasn't getting much work done because people were constantly asking if they could talk to my PC. I fibbed and said the program crashed and I didn't have time to rebuild it.

Not one person caught on that my PC didn't really have a mind of it's own. They all thought the computer was REALLY talking to them, like a person. They were all bummed and acted like someone had died (I got many pats on the shoulder and words of encouragement.)

So now the truth comes out. Sorry guys. ;-)

I'd pretty much forgotten about this prank until I read that Joseph Weizenbaum, the famous programmer who wrote the code for ELIZA, died recently. It was his work that inspired Joseph Weintraub to create the PC Therapist, which was leaps and bounds more advanced. Mr. Weintraub won the Loebner Prize four times for his program - more times than anyone else has to date. That program sparked a life-long love of chatbots and AI. I still have the AOL Santa and SmarterChild chatbots on my buddy list (go ahead and try it, add SmarterChild to your AIM buddy list).

In my last job before I "retired" I was experimenting with web based virtual assistants - basically an AI chatbot program with a human looking avatar that would provide customer assistance on a website. You could ask it questions about a product or service and it would point you in the right direction, like a real customer service rep. I love being a full time mom, but sometimes I miss my work. I'm still a geek, at heart.


Laura said…
off topic but...
happy birthday to you!
happy birthday to you!
happy birthday dear becky...
and happy 1st anniversary too-oo!!!!
happy birthday to you!!!!!

hugs and love you!
Unhinged said…
WOW, Becky!

That's pretty cool. So I guess you are really s-m-a-r-t.

Smarty pants.

By the way, your deal of the day--the Delta classic two handle faucet? It's all sold out.

Is it your birthday? AND your anniversary? Holy cow if it is. Happy, happy, doubled.
Monica said…
Sorry I saw the comment and I forgot what I was going to say ... It's your birthday!?!?


I know you've been married more than 1 year so, what anniversary?

Anonymous said…
Happy Belated Birthday. you smart girl you!
freeepeace said…
Brilliant. I love this stuff. I am so late in the game as a newbie-geek (if you will). It amazes me how you original true geeks ever figured this brainy stuff out. I'm totally impressed. You're like my new hero.

I want a Becky t-shirt!! LOL

But seriously, you should have your own show.

Popular Posts