He’s a little bit cryptic; he’s a little bit rock’n’roll.
Eugene Goostman, the imaginary 13-year-old Ukrainian, smart-alecky, also Jewish and playfully chatty A.I. bot that passed the Turing Test earlier in the month originated in a project formulated, in part, in Milwaukee. John Denning, a member of the seven-person team credited with passing the test, was living in the city and working as a “Senior Professional in I.T.” (unfortunate acronym: SPIT) for GE Healthcare during much of the Goostman bot’s engineering. Denning says he spent four to eight hours a night, after work, helping to build the systems and knowledge base that fooled 10 out of a panel of 30 judges into thinking it was an actual human being. “We finished most of it back then,” he says – referring to the early 2000s. Congratulations, Milwaukee.
A major reason why the team led by Russian software wizards succeeded where others had failed was in adhering to, and slowly improving over more than a decade, this earliest version of Goostman. “We didn’t change everything all the time,” Denning says, and the team didn’t try to implant an encyclopedic corpus of knowledge into Eugene’s cybernetics, not that it couldn’t have. “It would have been really easy to make it know everything.” To pass the Turing Test, Goostman needed only to fool one-third of a panel of judges for five minutes, thereby breaking the software/humanity barrier in the arena of text-only communication.
It was more important that Goostman find his way in one of the most banal yet varied of activities: small talk. Incorporating the irony and self-effacement necessary turned out to be the greatest hurdle to work through, slowly but surely. "We kept entering it in competitions,” Denning says, “and it did better and better.”
For a short time, anyone could question Goostman at princetonai.com, but he's since moved to a private server and promises to return. “I’LL BE BACK!” the Ukrainian, now wearing sunglasses (that are a little bit Top Gun, a little bit Grandma’s eye condition), says, and he’ll be smarter when he does. A major expansion of his knowledge base is underway, from about 10,000 entries to 1.7-1.8 million.
The name “Goostman” is a derivative of the Russian word for Mongoose, a favorite animal of the Russian team members. Denning says the band initially wanted to use a transliteration, something like “Mongoost,” but he convinced them to take advantage of the original office’s location in New Jersey and use the legal name “Princeton A.I.,” although there was no connection to the university.
After eking through the Turing Test, Goostman and his site became hugely popular. “Our server melted fast,” Denning says, and even after shuttling Goostman onto cloud hosting, he continued to skip “sessions,” making him sound stupider than he was, which may have contributed to some of the early, skeptical coverage, such as Wired noting that Goostman, despite being Ukrainian, had never been to Ukraine, by his own account ... which is technically possible. (Perhaps he hasn’t yet learned when to embellish his personal history.)
Data, which we are now told controls everything, from TV shows to shopping.
Goostman’s predecessor (the Lore to Goostman’s Data) is SARA, an avatar that once appeared on the team’s website to answer visitors’ questions. Milwaukee designer Kandice Donnelly (now art director at Lit’l Design) was photographed for the interface, which is no longer available online but see the screencap below.
Denning swats away criticism that in designing a bot with purposefully shaky English, the team cut corners. “It wasn’t cheating,” he says. “The world is full of people who don’t speak English as their first language.” He even speculates that part of Goostman’s appeal in Europe has been his non-native English, and he's also developed a strong Jewish following, thanks in part to the team’s efforts at avoiding the appearance of anti-Semitism. (One of the team members is Jewish.) In the biographical details released thus far, there’s little else that defines the 13-year-old.
And because this is the Games blog, we asked whether Goostman’s wits could be licensed out to gaming developers to enliven in-game characters. Most still use “dialogue trees,” which tend toward woodenness and repetition.
“There are a lot of options, from video games to smart appliances,” he said. “We’re focusing now on helping people pick their health insurance, and helping to find the very best doctor or hospital. We call it ‘Playing 20 Questions.’”
Another possible application is an email-responding bot that would send out pat messages as needed. Denning says he thought about coding one at GE that would auto-respond, “Thanks! I put it on my calendar,” something he found himself typing a lot.
Because sometimes your job, even when you’re a fully breathing, eating and sleeping human being, can make you feel like a robot.
SARA, who predated Siri