I have finally managed to replicate myself in digital form. My online alter ego suffers from a profoundly limited vocabulary and poor reading comprehension—but it’s still a start.
Credit for this feat of minor self-replication goes to an introductory course in building chatbots that can engage in basic conversations with strangers. That came at the
Bots for beginners
I had the unfair advantage of getting somebody else to do the hardest work upfront:
My part of this
In keeping with my tradition of being Kryptonite to tech demos, I screwed that up. Keefe’s page ignored more than the first handful of queries I’d included in this spreadsheet and didn’t respond to the commands that were supposed to refresh its grasp of my database.
I asked Keefe for help. “Hmm, it is definitely not happy,” he commented before taking a closer look at my questions and answers. The problem turned out to be a typo—I’d entered a curly bracket instead of a parenthesis when enclosing a
That was my first lesson in bot programming: punctuation matters. The second: Keeping the search terms brief made for a more responsive bot. I didn’t need to include “What’s Rob’s Twitter handle?” as a possible query when “Twitter?” would allow the bot to field far more questions about
Things get complicated
I fixed that and now have
My beginner’s bot is nowhere as smart as the ones you can deploy on Facebook (
But setting up
The team-messaging app Slack abounds with bots, but creating those also amounts to a
You can apparently create a Twitter (
Not for the first time, an online tool that could be useful to those of us lumped under the faceless, amorphous term “users” is largely reserved for developers instead—even though many of us could use this feature in our own lives.
Bots with benefits
A little time spent plugging questions and answers into this Google spreadsheet got me thinking about other potential applications of having a bot for a mouthpiece. Beyond answering reader questions on Facebook, the same technology could save me vast amounts of time answering
Having a bot speak on your behalf in a web chat or phone call with a giant corporation would be another obvious application, something ACLU policy analyst
Alas, today’s customer-advocate bots can easily outstrip their programming. When my colleague Daniel Roberts tried using one to negotiate a lower Comcast rate for his mom,
But one use case for bots doesn’t need any subtle programming: