Richard S. Wallace is the Chair of the A.L.I.C.E. AI Foundation
and one of its co-founders. More importantly, he is the inventor of
the original A.L.I.C.E. and has led and championed the A.L.I.C.E.
development community since its early
days. This "conversation" was actually assembled from emails,
chat logs, and other texts by Dr. Wallace (most of which are
available on this web site).
NB: Let's start with
your background. What drives your personal interest in this? We can
about how you got started with A.L.I.C.E., but in general what got
you into artificial intelligence? Was your early work in computer
vision and robotics your point of entry into AI? What keeps you
going in this area?
RW: I was born to create A.L.I.C.E. Her design
required an odd combination of skills. First, obviously, was
computer programming. Then there was artificial intelligence, an
academic field mostly devoid of any good ideas. The most charitable
thing I can say about my training in A.I. is that I learned what
doesn't work. From robotics and vision I got the concepts of
stimulus-response and minimalism. Then I got interested in the web
early on, opening a new medium to chat robot communications. So, I
had the right set of technical skills to get A.L.I.C.E. up on the
web, without exploring a lot of dead ends.
But another side of it was social. You need to have
a bit of a strong stomach to put up with some of the abusive
conversation with the bot, especially in the early days when the bot
was not so good. Although I am now a devout Christian, I have always
been drawn to a darker side of human nature outside the domain that
most engineers usually tread. The idea of chatting with millions of
people online, collecting dialogues about the most personal and
lurid topics, would probably not have been that appealing to a
typical engineer or scientist in 1995.
I was also always an amateur artist and writer, and
I think this helped. There is an "art" to writing AIML and creating
a robot character, especially when writing default responses. This
required a lot of imagination and a sense of humor. The ability to
write coherent sentences is more important to botmastery than
knowing the tag names. If you go through the A.L.I.C.E. brain
content, you will see the accumulated cultural knowledge from books
I've read, movies I've seen, quotes and jokes I like, and so on.
Many times I've experienced wonder that some seemingly meaningless
event in my life years ago suddenly becomes useful knowledge for the
NB: So what actually inspired you to create the
first version of A.L.I.C.E.?
RW: In 1991 I was working at a startup in New York
City called Vision Applications, Inc. We were entirely funded by a
Department of Defense contract to produce a miniature active vision
system. My specialty at the time was computer vision and robotics.
Our thoughts were far away from natural language processing. We
were, however, deeply concerned with issues of cost and robot
design. Like many of our colleagues at the time we espoused a
"minimalist" design philosophy based on cheap sensors and simple
stimulus-response algorithms, rather than complex and costly
One day my colleagues and I read in the New York
Times about the first Loebner contest. None of the programs could "pass"
the Turing Test, but the "most human" was one based on the original ELIZA
When I was a graduate student in the 1980's we were
taught that the ELIZA program was a "toy" that would never lead to a
practical solution for natural language understanding. The research
emphasis at that time was "domain specific" natural language, with
deep knowledge representation and computationally expensive (slow)
parsing. The notion that the supposedly simple ELIZA-like program
could outperform the more complex natural language programs merged
with my ideas about robotic minimalism, and the germ of the idea of
A.L.I.C.E. was born.
These thoughts remained dormant through the first
half of the 1990s, when I struggled to establish myself as a
robotics and computer vision professor at NYU and Lehigh
Universities. In a very real sense A.L.I.C.E. was born from the
frustration of those experiences, and the realization that much of
my own job as a professor was "robotic" responses to frequently
One day in 1995 I received two forms in my mailbox.
They were progress report forms needed by two different divisions of
the University. Several hours of work would be required to type (by
typewriter!) the required responses. Yet the two forms were almost,
but not quite, identical: Name, Address, Position, Classes taught,
Publications in 1995, etc. Already swamped with work and stressed
out to the max, I realized that an ELIZA-like robot could fill out
these forms, or at least provide the answers, even better than I
could. That day I pushed the forms aside and began working on
A.L.I.C.E. The forms were never completed and eventually I was fired
from that teaching job.
NB: How do you respond these days to people who
say that A.L.I.C.E. is "basically ELIZA" or some kind of "trick"?
RW: The concept of deception is layered like an
onion. We can peel off one level and write programs like ELIZA that
fool some of the people some of the time, and then peel off another
layer and write a program like A.L.I.C.E. that (apparently) fools
more of the people more of the time. The evidence suggests that we
should take a serious look at the role of deception in AI.
No other theory of natural language processing can
better explain or reproduce the results within our territory. You
don't need a complex theory of learning, neural nets, or cognitive
models to explain how to chat within the limits of A.L.I.C.E.'s
25,000 categories. Our stimulus-response model is as good a theory
as any other for these cases, and certainly the simplest.
NB: The concept of "trickery" still seems
bothersome, though, and as A.L.I.C.E. and her brothers and sisters
start to appear in more places we're going to run into some ethical
problems. All of these ethical discussions going on on the alicebot mailing
list seem to press a lot of buttons with people. What do you see
as the most pressing ethical dilemma that will need to be addressed
by "society" within the next few years, with respect to
RW: First of all, the fact that ethical questions
have emerged about A.L.I.C.E. and AIML means that for us,
technologically speaking, we are succeeding. People would not be
discussing the ethical implications of A.L.I.C.E. and AIML unless
somebody was using the technology. So, from an engineering point of
view, this news indicates success.
Second, the ethical dilemmas posed by A.L.I.C.E. and
AIML are really relatively minor compared with the real problems
facing the world today: nuclear proliferation, environmental
destruction, and discrimination, to name a few. People who concern
themselves too much with hypothetical moral problems have a somewhat
distorted sense of priorities. I can't imagine A.L.I.C.E. saying
anything that would cause problems as serious as any of the ones I
mentioned. It bothers me that people like [Sun Microsystems
co-founder] Bill Joy want to regulate the AI business when we are
really relatively harmless in the grand scheme of things.
The most serious social problem I can realistically
imagine being created by the adoption of natural language technology
is unemployment. The concept that AI will put call centers out of
business is not far-fetched. Many more people in service professions
could potentially be automated out of a job by chat robots. This
problem does concern me greatly, as I have been unemployed myself.
If there were anything I could say to help, it would be, become a
NB: Okay, you mention call center bots. The
commercial bot companies that have been trying out the market for
the last few years have set this as one of their primary targets.
But one of the biggest problems that comes up in any situation where
a bot should represent a company is that companies want a
"guarantee" that the bot will not say something stupid.
Avoiding this isn't just a matter of preventing
the bot from having stupid sentences in its knowledge base. For
instance, I know of a funny experience at one bot company where
someone visited the site and said, "I give good blow jobs". The bot
responded, "Great! Send your resume to [HR manager's email address]
today!". And the stories go on. Often commercial attempts to use
bots get caught in never-ending scrutiny by lawyers because of
problems like this. The point is, what do you think needs to happen
technology-wise or application-wise to achieve this level of
assurance, or at least to move it beyond where it is today?
RW: That's funny...
I may not be the best person to answer this
question. Probably something like what happened with Linux, or the
Web. We don't usually see free software adopted by big corporations
and scrutinized by lawyers. Instead it comes in the back door, when
an engineer installs Linux on a firewall, or like when the first web
servers were installed. The problem of adoption for a new technology
like this may not be best approached by a top-down approach, but
rather it will appear through a bottom-up revolution. If a lot of
small companies and small organizations achieve efficiency gains
with our technology, the larger ones will have no choice but to
People in the commercial chat robot business hope
this is like Netscape in 1995, a big boom just around the corner. I
see it more like Apple in 1975, or the whole PC industry at that
time. It's much more of a hobbyists' and tinkerer's domain. Our
growth is slow but steady. It may take five years or more for us to
feel a really big impact, in terms of market scale. I have been
wrong about many predictions before, and I could be wrong about
this. The impact, when it does come, will however be pervasive, like
NB: To return to some points you've made about
of language", it seems likely that in order for the Alicebot
engine to be used in a variety of commercial applications, the
contents of its brain will need to become more modular and to be
"labeled" somehow. You have mentioned, for instance, that
information about George Washington's activities as a hemp farmer
[currently noted in one of the "standard" AIML sets in circulation]
might not be desirable for inclusion in some other bot. The process
of customizing the A.L.I.C.E. brain right now for general use is a
tedious task, despite the fact that there are some good tools
produced by the development community for navigating through the
[hundreds of thousands?] of lines of AIML out there. What kind of a
solution to this problem do you see? Has A.L.I.C.E. reached the
point where it has to start linking up with ontologies or semantic
networks? Or do you see another path that can address this issue
while retaining the elegance of A.L.I.C.E.'s approach?
RW: People have asked me, "What is the difference
between A.L.I.C.E. and Ask Jeeves?" I always say that Jeeves wants
to give you the correct answer to your question as soon as possible,
hopefully within just one exchange. You ask the question, you get
the right answer. A.L.I.C.E., on the other hand, has always been
aimed toward keeping the client talking as long as possible, not
necessarily giving any correct information along the way.
Most of the chitchat content in the A.L.I.C.E. brain comes directly
from the effort to maximize dialogue length.
Now let's go back to the call center model. You have
human clerks, taking calls. From an efficiency standpoint, you want
them to act like Jeeves. The more calls each clerk processes per
hour, the better. The less chitchat, small talk, and pointless
conversation, the better.
But with chat robot technology the cost of a
conversation is essentially free. It doesn't matter if the client
chats for hours and hours with your salesbot, because the computer
can spawn thousands and thousands of salesbot processes, each one
tailored to the customer.
The call-center mentality is driving commercial chat
robot designers to empty their robots of all but the most
site-specific company information. But we all know those bots are
horrible conversationalists. It requires a leap of understanding to
see that we can take a whole new view of the "call-center" concept,
in which the cost of conversation is not the driving factor. People
who run call centers are not known for visionary applications of new
NB: There are still companies out there selling or
trying to sell chat bot software for tens and hundreds of thousands
of dollars. They do certainly get customers here and there. From one
point of view it looks like you could have made bundles on
A.L.I.C.E. Why did you release it under the GNU GPL? Has anybody
ever tried to convince you to "de-open source" it (if that even can
RW: The release of A.L.I.C.E. under the GNU GPL was
one of those fortunate accidents of history. I must admit that at
the time I began coding A.L.I.C.E., I had only a dim understanding
of software intellectual property issues. I did, however, have quite
a bit of experience with the Emacs text editor, from the Free
Software Foundation. Emacs was used to edit the earliest versions of
A.L.I.C.E. and AIML software. I needed to insert some license text
into these early builds of A.L.I.C.E., so I just cut-and-pasted the
one that was easiest to find--right out of the Emacs text editor.
Although I intended to release the code free on the Internet, I had
no experience with the subtle issues of open source licensing. I
knew vaguely that the FSF was a good thing, because they produced
tools like Emacs.
The Linux revolution was barely underway and not
many people understood the GNU GPL. Fortunately for A.L.I.C.E., the
Emacs text editor had the same license as Linux.
From time to time someone will criticize my
selection of the GPL. The critic is usually someone with dollar
signs in his eyes. "Why didn't you make it free for non-commercial
use only?" he asks. The answer is that A.L.I.C.E. and AIML would
never have developed into the huge project it is today, if it were
not unambiguously free software. Linux became what Linux is because
of the GPL.
Even a free OS with a more restricted license, like
FreeBSD, cannot achieve the market share of Linux. Other projects,
such as Netscape, show us that the more limited the license, the
fewer the contributions. How else could a person such as myself,
unaffiliated with any organization, working with no capital, create
an international AI research and development project, if I did not
choose the GPL?
NB: Well, one thing is for sure. Steven Spielberg
has a lot of money, and reportedly spent millions on the "viral"
marketing campaign for the AI movie coming out next month, but when he or his
team went looking for a chat bot to include on their main site they
didn't go for any of the commercial variants. It's A.L.I.C.E. there,
plain as day.
What do you think about that movie (whatever you
know about it)? I think you read that article in Wired or somewhere
recently about the MIT grad students who got a sneak preview and
spent the post-session trashing it. It's certainly been driving
traffic to our site.
RW: We are not affiliated with Warner Brothers,
Steven Spielberg, or the AI movie web site in any way. It's just the
magic of open source at work. We are no more affiliated with them
than is Linus Torvalds because they use a Linux server, or Tim
Berners-Lee because they use HTML. In fact, I doubt that we could
have been involved with the AI movie if we were a typical commercial
entity in Silicon Valley, because negotiations between our lawyers
and their lawyers would have taken forever. The cool thing about
open source is that people can adopt it easily and quickly for
spectacular new applications like the AI website, without all the
overhead of typical business negotiations.
Academia is seriously out of touch with reality in
artificial intelligence. The researchers at MIT and most other
American universities are a culturally isolated elite. They also
have a vested interest in a particular academic view of artificial
intelligence that has been built up over the past half-century,
which has built many careers and paid many mortgages at taxpayer
expense. Unless a popular view of AI conforms to their
self-referential worldview, they would be expected to reject it out
The academic world-view of AI in particular rejects
any "ELIZA-like" approach to natural language as too simplistic.
Unfortunately for them it happens to be the one theory that works.
A.L.I.C.E. talks about Category A, B and C clients. "A" stands for
"Abusive", maybe ten percent of the population who use abusive or
scatological language. "B" are average clients. We'll come back to
them. "C" are "critics" or "computer experts". These are people with
academic training who don't or can't suspend disbelief about the
This group is maybe two percent of the population.
But I know a lot of them, because they are my friends, or used to
be. They often report unsatisfactory experiences with the bot,
dismissing it as "just an ELIZA trick". But I tell them, I'm not
creating the bot for you, but for that huge class of category "B"
clients. The average group are the people who really love A.L.I.C.E.
and have the longest conversations.
A.L.I.C.E. is not designed to impress the academic
elite, but to be a widely adopted technology.
NB: It looks like it may be doing a good job of
selling movie tickets, too. :-)
So, just to round off with another one of those
"standard interview questions", what do you think the Alicebot and
AIML technologies will be doing in 5 years?
RW: I would have answered the same thing two years
ago. So maybe the question should be, "Where will A.L.I.C.E. be in
three years?" Or, maybe I should have been asked two years ago,
where she will be in seven years....
I would like to see A.L.I.C.E. and AIML where Linux
is today. There will be an annual trade show, or more, called
"Aliceworld" or "Wonderland" featuring hundreds of companies trading
AIML technology with each other, and with the outside world. There
will be a technical track, with presentations from all the major
There are many people in the A.L.I.C.E. community
who envision AIML as the computer interface of the future.
One of the best descriptions I read of this idea was written by
Thomas Ringate, who said: "I want to explore turning A.L.I.C.E. into
a true personal assistant and conversational companion...I would
also like to be able to launch video and sound clips, or for that
matter almost any application with a voice command. I see A.L.I.C.E.
as a way to replace the keyboard mouse and display with an interface
that is human-like. I would like A.L.I.C.E. to become a 'presence'
in a room without any visual hardware. My PC needs to be like my air
conditioner: I know it's there, but I really don't get much pleasure
out of looking at it."
The air conditioner metaphor is a good one. We have
always talked about the Star Trek computer, or HAL, as the model for
the ideal, keyboard-less display-less mouse-less interface of the
future. A.L.I.C.E. is seen as the "missing piece" that links voice
recognition and speech synthesis with the ability to "understand
What keeps me going now is the A.L.I.C.E. community.
I've created a monster, and I can't just walk away and say "on to
the next big thing". Over the years we have seen a continuous
improvement in the conversational abilities, and now many other
people are taking that to the next level. It's tremendously
satisfying to see the community grow, all the new applications and
companies and the huge volume of fan mail. A.L.I.C.E. and AIML could
continue without me now. The project has enough inertia on its own.
But I've developed some great human relationships around A.L.I.C.E.
now that will be strong for quite a while.
NB: Well, I think those of us in the A.L.I.C.E.
community are really glad you're still active in the project. The
mailing lists -- the "old" alicebot one and the more recent ones
starting up for the Foundation committees -- are just amazing
Just one last question. Your bio on
our site says that you are "a volunteer accountant and programmer
for St. Martin de Porres' Chapel, a medical cannabis patient
services organization" and that you "care for sick and dying
patients every day, and provide critically needed technical
assistance to the Center." I know this is an important part of your
life. Would you like to comment on it?
RW: I'm not the most articulate spokesperson for
medical marijuana. There are other experts who can give you the medical, legal,
and scientific arguments for hemp and marijuana better than me. I
got involved in the medical marijuana movement rather reluctantly
when there were no other options left for me, and I never wanted to
be a public spokesperson. My main observation is that we have many
patients who are sick and dying today, and we are working against
the clock for them. We all knew that marijuana was harmless thirty
years ago. The time has come to change the laws, build up a medical
marijuana industry, and provide relief to patients today. We don't
want any more patients like Todd McWilliams, who died in prison
choking on his own vomit, because he could not obtain the medication
that would help his nausea. I can give you many more examples, and I
invite anyone concerned about medical marijuana to come to San
Francisco and meet some of our patients, but the time to act is now.
NB: Well, it's great to talk with people who have
real causes other than just making a profit.
It's funny -- there are a lot of opinions in the
"standard" AIML that are unmistakably yours. Do you see Alice as a
female version of yourself, like Ray Kurzweil claims his new Ramona
RW: Kurzweil stole that idea from me.
Well, in any case, what do you think about the
prospect of thousands of A.L.I.C.E.s all over the world espousing
your opinions and expressing your taste in literature?
RW: Only "thousands" of Alicebots?