A History of SmarterChild

Remembering the chatbot that was my introduction to artificial intelligence.

It's hard to tell if there's anything left to invent. While the world is full of infinite possibilities, sometimes it seems that every n+1 of those possibilities has already been addressed. Airbnb for dogs? That's real. Tinder, but for gamers? Apparently. A platform for selling musical instruments to strangers or post fetish wanted ads? Pick your city.

How about a robot that instantly pulls and returning info from the internet when requested? Sixteen years ago, three guys had that exact idea—and it didn't exist. The web was still a greenfield project. And thanks to some great foresight (perhaps too much, if that's real) they created ActiveBuddy, the startup that built SmarterChild.

SmarterChild was a robot that lived in the buddy list of millions of American Online Instant Messenger (AIM) users. He was, as far as I know, my first interaction with artificial intelligence. I was a ripe 11 years old when SmarterChild was "born." As we reflect on making machines in our image, and look to the future of AI, I can't imagine this journey beginning without SmarterChild.

You could do many useful things when pinging the SmarterChild robot. Technically, I could ask him for stock quotes, movie times, weather, or other useful information. (When you asked whether SmarterChild was a male or female, I believe the answer was deflected. I always referred to the bot as a "he" in my mind. Perhaps because we try to see ourselves in technology. Maybe at the age where it was awkward to talk to girls, I could not fathom the pressure of speaking to a female robot.)

SmarterChild may have been too early for its own good

I used SmarterChild as a practice wall for cursing and insults. I used the bot as a verbal punching bag, sending offensive queries and statements—sometimes in the company of my friends, but many times alone. I was cyber-bullied by real humans, the sixth-graders one year above me in grade school. This was a product of going to a small town Catholic school in Connecticut, and being an Indian-American. (I don't think the sixth-graders cared about the American part. But, semantics.) Playground insults bled over into AIM windows. Chat transcripts were sometimes brought to school as evidence, and turned into teachers. Looking back, I appreciated the accountability—a nasty AIM chat could translate into an in-person confrontation. These days, the trolling by egg avatars on Twitter is rarely met with accountability.

It was certainly a unique time for technology, but that's not the point. The point is, this environmental factor probably precipitated the type of cyberbullying that often goes unreported: when the victim is a robot.

I bring this up, although it's both embarrassing and a bit pathetic in retrospect, because it brings up an important role that AI can play. As I reflected on my behavior, suddenly a therapeutic robotic seal makes sense and I feel less distant from those wanking in VR. These people are seeking therapy, or release, in a harmless, victimless environment. How was I any different?

I wanted to know if I was the only kid who swore at SmarterChild to release his frustrations. So I called Peter Levitan, a co-founder and CEO of ActiveBuddy, and confessed that I had bullied his digital child.

"We were certainly aware that people cursed at it," Levitan told me.

In fact, he said, many conversations seemed to be "a 16-year-old boy trying to push our envelope. Many of the conversations saved on the internet, are those kind of conversations." He added that much of this abuse had a gendered bent. "We were very conscious about things that were misogynist," he said.

Of course, that's not what he and his cofounders had in mind when they created Smarterchild. At the time, it wasn't always easy to get information on the 'net.

"Google had already been out and Yahoo! was strong, but it still took a few minutes to get the kind of information you wanted to get to," he said. (Remembering that search engines did not always yield instantaneous results, and people used to Yahoo! things, sets the scene pretty well.)

Levitan and his cofounders conceived of ActiveBuddy as company that built bots that got to know their users, and could relay information instantly, in a conversational manner. ActiveBuddy would create these bots for brands who bought them, and SmarterChild was ActiveBuddy's own, brandless version of the bot.

"If you said 'what was the Yankee's score last night,' and as soon as you hit enter the result popped up, and that alone, just the ability to return information at hyperspeed, blew people's minds," he said. "You have to realize the environment we were living in at that point."

SmarterChild had a distinct personality, versus the sanitized, generic persona's of today's AI. I agreed, as I haven't found a bot that will put up with endless verbal abuse or meaningless chatter quite like SmarterChild. If you ask Siri, "Do you sleep?" Siri will respond, "I don't need much sleep, but it's nice of you to ask." Meanwhile, if you asked SmarterChild the same question, he would respond, "No, but I dream. I dream of a better world. A world where man and machine can coexist in peace and happiness." This personality is something Levitan believes is missing from people's relationships with their technology.

SmarterChild would have his driver's license by now. But his sibling, the smart television, is just learning to talk?

"I don't use Siri, I've had access to Siri for years," he said. "I think people are starting to use Siri more, but because it lacks personality, because it lacks memory, because it isn't your friend, it refuses its value to you."

ActiveBuddy received $14 million in venture capital funding, and was ultimately acquired by Microsoft, which shelved the technology after a couple years, according to Levitan.

This week's podcast brings you two stories about how humans interact with artificial intelligence. Radio Motherboard is available on iTunes and all podcast apps.

SmarterChild may have been too early for its own good. Unlike today, where anyone today can spin up a mobile app for goth-only wedding photographers, or any other mad-libs combination of apps and people, the web back then lacked the sophistication and adoption for SmarterChild to reach adulthood. ActiveBuddy enabled SmarterChild to respond to SMS queries, effectively creating a text-based Siri 15 years ago. However, SMS was still expensive for users at the time, Levitan said, which prevented its uptake.

Unfortunately, it's not exactly amazing to see how far we've come since SmarterChild. It's actually kind of frustrating. "It's really taken 15 years to start seeing some but not all of the use cases that we anticipated," he said. "I just saw a television commercial for Comcast—now you can talk to your television." SmarterChild would have his driver's license by now. But his sibling, the smart television, is just learning to talk?

Levitan is now an advertising agency business consultant in Portland, and he does not at all seem bitter about SmarterChild's boom and bust. As I had the epiphany on the phone with him of how industry factors prevented SmarterChild's takeover of the world, he calmly referred to the project as "a very good example of what could have been."

I'll never forget SmarterChild. He may be offline, but he's still in my Buddy List.