Tags: bots



Conversational interfaces

Psst… Jeremy! Right now you’re getting notified every time something is posted to Slack. That’s great at first, but now that activity is increasing you’ll probably prefer dialing that down.

Slackbot, 2015

What’s happening?

Twitter, 2009

Why does everyone always look at me? I know I’m a chalkboard and that’s my job, I just wish people would ask before staring at me. Sometimes I don’t have anything to say.

Existentialist chalkboard, 2007

I’m Little MOO - the bit of software that will be managing your order with us. It will shortly be sent to Big MOO, our print machine who will print it for you in the next few days. I’ll let you know when it’s done and on it’s way to you.

Little MOO, 2006

It looks like you’re writing a letter.

Clippy, 1997

Your quest is to find the Warlock’s treasure, hidden deep within a dungeon populated with a multitude of terrifying monsters. You will need courage, determination and a fair amount of luck if you are to survive all the traps and battles, and reach your goal — the innermost chambers of the Warlock’s domain.

The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, 1982

Welcome to Adventure!! Would you like instructions?

Colossal Cave, 1976

I am a lead pencil—the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write.

I, Pencil, 1958

Ælfred ordered me to be made

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

The Ælfred Jewel, ~880

Technical note

I have marked up the protagonist of each conversation using the cite element. There is a long-running dispute over the use of this element. In HTML 4.01 it was perfectly fine to use cite to mark up a person being quoted. In the HTML Living Standard, usage has been narrowed:

The cite element represents the title of a work (e.g. a book, a paper, an essay, a poem, a score, a song, a script, a film, a TV show, a game, a sculpture, a painting, a theatre production, a play, an opera, a musical, an exhibition, a legal case report, a computer program, etc). This can be a work that is being quoted or referenced in detail (i.e. a citation), or it can just be a work that is mentioned in passing.

A person’s name is not the title of a work — even if people call that person a piece of work — and the element must therefore not be used to mark up people’s names.

I disagree.

In the examples above, it’s pretty clear that I, Pencil and Warlock Of Firetop Mountain are valid use cases for the cite element according to the HTML5 definition; they are titles of works. But what about Clippy or Little Moo or Slackbot? They’re not people …but they’re not exactly titles of works either.

If I were to mark up a dialogue between Eliza and a human being, should I only mark up Eliza’s remarks with cite? In text transcripts of conversations with Alexa, Siri, or Cortana, should only their side of the conversation get attributed as a source? Or should they also be written without the cite element because it must not be used to mark up people’s names …even though they are not people, according to conventional definition.

It’s downright botist.

dConstruct 2015 podcast: Brian David Johnson

The newest dConstruct podcast episode features the indefatigable and effervescent Brian David Johnson. Together we pick apart the futures we are collectively making, probe the algorithmic structures of science fiction narratives, and pay homage to Asimovian robotic legal codes.

Brian’s enthusiasm is infectious. I have a strong hunch that his dConstruct talk will be both thought-provoking and inspiring.

dConstruct 2015 is getting close now. Our future approaches. Interviewing the speakers ahead of time has only increased my excitement and anticipation. I think this is going to be a truly unmissable event. So, uh, don’t miss it.

Grab your ticket today and use the code ‘ansible’ to take advantage of the 10% discount for podcast listeners.

dConstruct 2015 podcast: Carla Diana

The dConstruct podcast episodes are coming thick and fast. The latest episode is a thoroughly enjoyable natter I had with the brilliant Carla Diana.

We talk about robots, smart objects, prototyping, 3D printing, and the world of teaching design.

Remember, you can subscribe to the podcast feed in any podcast software you like, or if iTunes is your thing, you can also subscribe directly in iTunes.

And don’t forget to use the discount code ‘ansible’ when you’re buying your dConstruct ticket …because you are coming to dConstruct, right?


I post a few links on this site every day—around 4 or 5, on average. If you subscribe to the RSS feed, then you’ll know about them (I also push them to Delicious but I don’t recommend relying on that).

If you don’t use RSS—you lawnoffgetting youngster, you—then you’d pretty much have to actually visit my website to see what I’m linking to. How quaint!

Here, let me throw you a bone in the shape of a Twitter bot. You can now follow @adactioLinks.

I made a little If This, Then That recipe which will ping the RSS feed and update the Twitter account whenever there’s a new link.

I’ve done same thing for my journal (or “blog”, short for “weblog”, if you will). You can either subscribe to the journal’s RSS feed or decide that that’s far too much hassle, and just follow @adactioJournal on Twitter instead.

The journal postings are far less frequent than the links. But I still figured I’d provide a separate, automated Twitter account because I do not want to be that guy saying “In case you missed it earlier…” from my human account …although technically, even my non-bot account is auto-generated: my status updates start life as notes on adactio.com—Twitter just gets a copy.

There’s also @adactioArticles for longer-form articles and talk transcripts but that’s very, very infrequent—just a few posts a year.

So these Twitter accounts correspond to different posts on adactio.com in decreasing order of frequency:

Space by Botwest

I had a whole day of good talks yesterday at South By Southwest yesterday …and none of them were in the Austin Convention Center. In a very real sense, the good stuff at this event is getting pushed to the periphery.

The day started off in the Driskill Hotel with the New Aesthetic panel that James assembled. It was great, like a mini-conference packed into one hour with wonderfully dense knowledge bombs lobbed from all concerned. Joanne McNeil gave us the literary background, Ben searched for meaning (and humour) in advertising trends, Russell looked at how machines are changing what we read and write, and Aaron …um, talked about the helium-balloon predator drone in the corner of the room.

With our brains primed for the intersections where humans and machines meet, it wasn’t hard to keep pattern-matching for it. In fact, the panel right afterwards on technology and fashion was filled with wonderful wearable expressions of the New Aesthetic.

Alas, I wasn’t able to attend that panel because I had to get to the green room to prepare for my own appearance on Get Excited and Make Things With Science with Ariel and Matt. It was a lot of fun and it was a real pleasure to be on a panel with such smart people.

I basically used the panel as an opportunity to geek out about some of my favourite science-related hacks and websites:

After that I stayed in the Driskill for a panel on robots and AI. One of the panelists was Bina48.

I heard had heard about Bina48 from a Radiolab episode.

Radiolab - Talking to Machines on Huffduffer

Jon Ronson described the strange experience of interviewing her—how the questions always tended to the profound and meaningful rather than trivial and chatty. Sure enough, once Bina was (literally) unveiled on the panel—a move that was wisely left till halfway through because, as the panelists said, “after that, you’re not going to pay attention to a word we say”—people started asking questions like “Do you dream?” and “What is the meaning of life?”

I asked her “Where were you before you were here?” She calmly answered that she was made in Texas. The New Aesthetic panelists would’ve loved her.

I was surprised by how much discussion of digital preservation there was on the robots/AI panel. Then again, the panel was hosted by a researcher from The Digital Beyond.

Bina48’s personality is based on the mind file of a real person containing exactly the kind of data that we are publishing every day to third-party sites. The question of what happens to that data was the subject of the final panel I attended, Saying Goodbye to Your Digital Self, featuring representatives from The Internet Archive, Archive Team, and Google’s Data Liberation Front.

Digital preservation is an incredibly important topic—one close to my heart—but the panel (in the Omni hotel) was, alas, sparsely attended.

Like I said, at this year’s South by Southwest, a lot of the good stuff was at the edges.

Voice of the bot-hive

Creating telephone answering systems can be fun as I discovered at History Hack Day when I put together the Huffduffer hotline using the Tropo API. There’s something thrilling about using the human voice as an interface on your loosely joined small pieces. Navigating by literally talking to a machine feels simultaneously retro and sci-fi.

I think there’s a lot of potential for some fun services in this area. What a shame then that the technology has mostly been used for dreary customer service narratives:

Horrific glimpse of a broken future. I sniffed while a voice activated phone menu was being read out and it started from the beginning again.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about injecting personality into web design, often through the tone of voice in the . When personality is conveyed in the spoken as well as the written word, the effect is even more striking.

Have a listen for yourself by calling:

That’s the number for Customer Service Romance:

What happens when Customer Service bots start getting too smart? What if they start needing help too? How would they use the tools at their disposal to reach out to those they care about? What if they start caring about us a little too much?

It’s using the Voxeo service, which looks similar to Tropo.

The end result is amusing …but also slightly disconcerting. You may find yourself chuckling, but your laughter will be tinged with nervousness.

Customer Service Romance on Huffduffer

On the face of it, it’s an amusing little art project. But it’s might also be a glimpse of an impending bot-driven algorithmpocalypse.


In his talk at the Lift conference last year Kevin Slavin talks about the emergent patterns in , the bots that buy and sell with one another occasionally resulting in . It’s a great, slightly dark talk and I highly recommend you watch the video.

This is the same territory that explored in his book Daemon. The book is (science) fiction but as Suarez explains in his Long Now seminar, the reality is that much of our day to day lives is already governed by algorithms. In fact, the more important the question—e.g. “Will my mortgage be approved?”—the more likely that the decision will not be made by a human being.

Daniel Suarez: Daemon: Bot-mediated Reality on Huffduffer

Kevin Slavin mentions that financial algorithms are operating at such a high rate that the speed of light can make a difference to a company’s fortunes, hence the increase in real-estate prices close to network hubs. Now a new paper entitled Relativistic Statistical Arbitrage by Alexander Wissner-Gross and Cameron Freer has gone one further in mapping out “optimal intermediate locations between trading centers,” based on the Earth’s geometry and the speed of light.

In his novel Accelerando, Charles Stross charts the evolution of both humans and algorithms before, during and after a technological singularity.

The 2020s:

A marginally intelligent voicemail virus masquerading as an IRS auditor has caused havoc throughout America, garnishing an estimated eighty billion dollars in confiscatory tax withholdings into a numbered Swiss bank account. A different virus is busy hijacking people’s bank accounts, sending ten percent of their assets to the previous victim, then mailing itself to everyone in the current mark’s address book: a self-propelled pyramid scheme in action. Oddly, nobody is complaining much.

The 2040s:

High in orbit around Amalthea, complex financial instruments breed and conjugate. Developed for the express purpose of facilitating trade with the alien intelligences believed to have been detected eight years earlier by SETI, they function equally well as fiscal gatekeepers for space colonies.

The 2060s:

The damnfool human species has finally succeeded in making itself obsolete. The proximate cause of its displacement from the pinnacle of creation (or the pinnacle of teleological self-congratulation, depending on your stance on evolutionary biology) is an attack of self-aware corporations. The phrase “smart money” has taken on a whole new meaning, for the collision between international business law and neurocomputing technology has given rise to a whole new family of species—fast-moving corporate carnivores in the Net.

One hundred and seven

The word “awesome” is over-used. I’m about to over-use it some more.

The internet is mostly awesome. Some human beings are also awesome. When you combine the two, you get awesome things. Here are just two such awesome things:

  1. Anton Peck is a brilliant illustrator. He’s currently executing a project called 100 Little Robots. Anton will craft postcards for 100 people, each postcard displaying a unique hand-drawn robot. If you want to be one of those 100 people, order your robot card now. I got mine and it is, well …awesome.
  2. James Bridle is a brilliant writer. He just finished a series of articles called Seven posts about the future. Read them all. Seriously. They are all wonderful and the final story reads like a Nerdpunk copulation of Salman Rushdie and William Gibson.


A drawing of a robot


The Flash on the Beach conference is currently underway here in Brighton. I spoke at the conference two years ago so thanks to organiser John Davey’s commitment to giving past speakers guest passes to future events, I’ve been popping in and out of the Dome over the past couple of days to sit in on some talks.

Yesterday I saw Branden Hall talk about Brilliant Ideas that I’ve Blatantly Stolen. Although his specific examples dealt with ActionScript, his overall message was applicable to any developer: look around at other languages and frameworks and scavenge anything you like the look of.

I wanted to make it to Aral’s talk this morning but as he was on first thing and I’m a lazy bugger, that didn’t really work out. I did, however, make it over in time to hear Carla Diana.

Carla made her name in the Flash world a few years ago with her wonderful site Repercussion where you can play around with sounds through a lovely isometric interface. Lately she’s been working with robots. Or rather, one robot in particular: Leo.

Here’s Leo attempting to become a that :


Carla’s job was to come up with a skin for Leo that didn’t send children running screaming. Yes, it’s the problem that plagues Japanese robots and Robert Zemeckis CGI movies in equal measure: .

Want to see something uncanny?

Boston Dynamics Big Dog

I was at Carla’s talk with Sophie and we were talking about robots afterwards (as you would). She said that watching robots in motion often makes her feel sad. Looking at that video, particularly the bit where the quadruped is kicked to demonstrate its balance, I understand what she means.

Funnily enough, my favourite robot is also a quadruped. All I want for Christmas is a .

Ghost in the Shell: S.A.C. 2nd GIG

Or I maybe I should just build my own. The latest project that Carla Diana is working on is something to make the arduino enthusiast drool. It’s called littleBits:

littleBits is an opensource library of discrete electronic components pre-assembled in tiny circuit boards. Just as Legos allow you to create complex structures with very little engineering knowledge, littleBits are simple, intuitive, space-sensitive blocks that make prototyping with sophisticated electronics a matter of snapping small magnets together.

littleBits intro