Bots, Demons & Dolls

‘Bots, Demons & Dolls’ originally published at Writer Response Theory, 2nd Oct, 2005.

Demon Inuyasha‘Socrates had a bot.’ Well, what Andrew Leonard then goes on to say in his book Bots: The Origin of New Species, is that Socrates had a nonhuman companion: a daemon. Leonard’s book gives an alternate (from my perspective) view of the history of bots. His book, which I only just discovered a few months ago, was first published in 1997. I haven’t finished his book yet (no indicator of the quality, just my lack of time), but I wanted to start discussing some of the views he puts forward and inspires.

Socrates’ daemon (daimonion/daimon) was a kind of oracle that offered insight but not advice. [Interesting that many bots are Oracles: Robert Kendall’s Soothcircuit; Nicholas S. Roy’s iGod; The Pythia @ Winged Sandals; The Glide Oracle; Ron Ingram’s BuddhaBot…know more?] Socrates believed, apparently, that the daemon was an ‘independent supernatural creature’, which he described in The Symposium as being Love, an ‘intermediate between the divine and the mortal’. Socrates didn’t conceive of a daemon as being good or bad, but during his trial this spirit he referred to became the latter.

The ‘word daemon’, Leonard ventures, ‘however spelled, uncovers a provocative and useful dualism. An intermediary with another world doesn’t have to be beneficient. Yet neither is it compelled to be nefarious. It can be both, flip-flopping between positive and negative states–depending on context or perception, on the vagaries of polities, or the whims of the fickle masses.’ The next daemon to be summoned was nineteenth-century physicist James Clerk Maxwell’s Demon. Maxwell’s Demon is a hypothetical invoked to explore the second law of thermodynamics: the entropy of the universe is always increasing. Fundamentally, something has to be given in order to get (eg: energy to get heat). Maxwell’s Demon is a “… being whose faculties are so sharpened that he can follow every molecule in its course, such a being, whose attributes are as essentially finite as our own, would be able to do what is impossible to us.” (source). The Demon is basically a guard or valve that monitors molecules in two rooms (there could be an interesting juxtaposition with the Turing Test here). The demon opens the sliding door or valve to let the molecules move between them at appropriate times, thus heating one room and cooling the other without expending energy. [This is just my attempt at an explanation of a complex theory.] ‘The worst one could say’, Leonard continues, ‘is that the tiny demon represented wishful thinking on a gigantic scale: Wouldn’t it be nice to have little helpers doing our bidding, in willing defiance of the laws of space and time? Wouldn’t it be grand to extend our limited human abilities into new, otherworldy dimensions?’. (Sound like a good definition of a bot!)

Then in 1958 Oliver Selfridge proposed a program called Pandemonium. Daniel Crevier (an AI historian) apparently wrote that the program was like “Milton’s captial of Hell: a screaming chorus of demons, all yelling their wishes to a master decision-making demon”. Selfridge himself is credited as introducing the notion of ‘demons’ into computer science. But this is all background, the next demon was actual.

In 1963 Fernando Corbato and his team running the IBM 7094 had big success with their time-sharing systems, but now wanted to have processes that didn’t require ‘constant human supervision’. They created one that ‘endlessly scanned the 7094’s databanks looking for files that had been modified since its last scan’ (19). In homage to Maxwell’s Demon, Corbato wanted to name the autonomous helper Demon. Michael Bailey, a member of the team, apparently recommended the invoking of Socrates’ daemon. Leonard deems Corbato’s Daemon the ‘ur-bot, the primeval form to which all present and future bots owe ancestry’. He acknowledges that many programmers would scoff at this claim, but says Corbato’s daemon influenced generations of MIT grads who then created gamebots & chatbots.

Then Leonard cites Joseph Weizenbaum’s 1966 bot Eliza as the “Bot erectus – the first software program to impersonate a human being successfully” (33). By impersonation he refers to the chat capabilities of Eliza. Saying Eliza was the “first chatterbot”. Then Weizenbaum’s colleague, Kenneth Colby, is discussed in light of Parry (1972). Eliza was modelled on a Rogerian model of therapy while Parry was a paranoid schizophrenic.

The next step forward was with Michael Mauldin’s bot Julia (1989?), created for the TinyMUD created by James Aspnes in 1989. Julia was ‘a giant step forward for botkind’ (41), not only for her conversational ability and because she also performs services, she ‘inspired countless hackers to put together their own bots and unleash them in MUDs and MOOS’ (42). In the 90s then, Leonard continues, we have Kenneth Schweller’s bot MrChat, which resides in the MOO he created: College Town. Schweller’s code has been adopted by many botmasters creating bots for MUDs & MOOs.

I personally haven’t included daemons in histories of bots I’ve given in class. This is because I haven’t known about the others. I usually discuss software agent programming in general — explaining ‘simple reflex agents’ (see Russell & Norvig)– but not the range of agents available (time constraints a large factor). I will include these agents from now on, but there are other pivotal points in bot history. What of Richard Wallace’s Alicebot (1995) for instance? If we are to describe bot history according to impact then Alicebot would be right up there. The software, which is highly accessible, has sporned hundreds of botmasters. It has also placed in the Loebner Prize four times (what kind of success this is an indicator of I’m not sure).

Indeed, the history of AI in ‘interactive drama’ hasn’t been touched on, for instance: Carnegie Mellon University’s Oz Project and more recently Mateas & Stern’s Facade (2005); or even generative texts: William Chamberlain and Thomas Etter’s Ractor (1984). We could also look at bots, indeed AI, through the perspective of how knowledge is represented, as Jorn Barger does in his Timeline of Knowledge-Representation. Heck, if we look at bots from a medial and arts type perspective, IF is a sibling. The text-based fiction with simple-reflex responses is highly relevant. So then we’d touch on Terry Winograd???s SHRDLU (1968-1970) (source: Montfort); Will Crowther and Don Woods’ Adventure (1975-6), Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels and Dave Lebling’s Zork (1978-1979) and so on.

And what about non screen-oriented bots, robots? They are part of the human journey to create autonomous beings, the research that goes into human-robot interaction is applicable to human-agent interaction, and alot of the agent software is and will be utilised in them. The history of robots — beginning with autonoma — is vitally important to bots (chatbots): Jaquet-Droz’s writing automaton (which apprently wrote ‘I do not think…do I therefore not exist?’ (source: Wood); Vaucanson’s duck and flute player (1739); Edison’s Talking Doll (1890); and the many Eastern autonomata — karakuri…and more recently the developments with robots: Rodney Brooks‘ space and doll robots; Cynthia Breazeal‘s Cog and Kismet

Bots do of course fall under the mantle of ergodic literature, literary machines and so on. Discussions on the heritage of such works have always cited invocational game-like generators like the I Ching. Given the daemon/Oracle background of bots, it seems justified then to include the history of divinatory arts. Indeed, those studying divinatory arts could cite bots as another form.

It seems, to me, that there are the following approaches to the history of bots. One that views or conceives of the history of bots in the context of [list edited after initial pub.]:

  • efforts to understand ourselves;
  • efforts to contact an ‘other’ (fill in your own concept of ‘other’ here);
  • software & programming;
  • impact;
  • creating other beings;
  • creating human beings;
  • creative and literary developments;
  • simple-reflex agents;
  • literary simple-reflex agents;
  • Artificial Intelligence;
  • literary Artificial Intelligence;
  • Embodied Agents;
  • text-based fiction;
  • and of course, any mix of the above.

As Andrew Leonard acknowledges in his book:

The bot family tree is a confused and contradictory plant, a warped and twisted structure as unlike Darwin’s great Tree of Life as a blackberry bush is unlike a weeping willow. (23)

I like the idea, though, of bundling the antecedents in clusters, to acknowledge the range of forces that have impacted, indeed, been essential to the creation of bots. Bots would not of come about, nor will develop, without the influence of all those approaches. Whatever your view of bots, they are without doubt a confluence of many aspects of this world.

About Andrew Leonard
It was difficult to find some info about Leonard. He used to be a writer for Wired Magazine, the publishers of the book, and a senior technology correspondent for Salon. Leonard writes an article about bots in Wired, Bots are Hot!, pre the launch of his book.

About the Book
There are some reviews of the book: one by Holly Gunn; another one at NYT; ECRB; one by Rod Pollock and a short review by Bernard Cohen @ trAce.

Over to You
I haven’t covered the entire history of bots, agents, robots and so on. Just given an overview of Andrew Leonard’s agent paradigm. Indeed, I haven’t spoken about a definition of bots, which is often implicit in the choice of heritage. The first chapter of Leonard’s book is online at the New York Times (free registration req). If you get the book and are keen to start discussing it too, feel free to register on this blog and go ahead and post! But for now, I’d like to know your views on the history of bots, and I’d especially like to know more about significant gamebots.