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Historians of artificial intelligence never talk about AI’s progress in the 1960s without a reference to Eliza, the first virtual personality. Eliza was a text-chat program written in 1966 by MIT AI expert Joseph Weizenbaum to parody a Rogerian psychotherapist, largely by turning every statement by the “patient” back into a question. If you tell Eliza “I am feeling blue today,” it’s apt to respond, “Do you enjoy feeling blue today?” To modern users, the pattern is obvious, and the illusion of talking to a real person drops away almost instantly. (See for yourself here or here.) Yet many people who used Eliza when the program was new were convinced, at least temporarily, that it was a real person.

Now there’s a Web-based service that, in essence, lets you set up your own Eliza and train it to mimic your own personality. No one will be fooled into thinking it’s you, but MyCyberTwin, launched earlier this month, does a decent job of acting as your stand-in or virtual public-relations agent when you’re not reachable. If you embed your cybertwin in your blog, website, or MySpace profile, visitors can learn about you through an open-ended conversation. You can program your cybertwin with as much factual information and as much of your personality as you like. If you think visitors to your blog might ask “What are you doing Saturday night?”, you can train it to respond “Going to see Harry Potter with friends. Why don’t you join us?”

MyCyberTwin is free, up to a point. About 10,500 people have signed up for the service, which is a venture of a Sydney, Australia, company called RelevanceNow and is still in its beta-testing phase. Of course, the concept only goes so far. Like Eliza, your cybertwin has no real intelligence at its core, and it must resort to lame conversational gambits if you haven’t provided it with a canned answer to your visitor’s specific question. Helpfully, however, the MyCyberTwin site contains extensive tools to help you anticipate those questions, such as personality tests and quizzes about your views on sex, politics, and religion. Those tools are all free too. RelevanceNow plans to make money by charging heavy users, such as businesses, by the conversation if their cybertwins have more than 500 visitors per month; by licensing MyCyberTwin to social-networking sites, which might integrate it into their offerings; and possibly, in the future, through targeted Web advertising.

“We wanted to build software clones of humans that learn about you and effectively function on your behalf,” says Liesl Capper, cofounder and CEO of RelevanceNow. “The problem with creating a chat AI is that it’s very laborious, trying to think of variations on what people will say and then creating responses. Building one has always been a labor of love that takes months, if not years. What we have built is the ability for people to make a cybertwin really quickly.”

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Credit: Original Photography by Simon Carroll

Tagged: Communications, software, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, cloning

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