How to create your own online chat bot

By Mark O’Neill

richelieu.jpgI am going through a big instant messaging phase at the moment (Google Talk and Twitter being my two favourite programs) and I have become a little obsessed recently with how IM programs work and in particular how chat bots work. Bots are simply small programs (with a sprinkling of artificial intelligence) which are automated and designed to do a specific task. So a search bot is designed to search for information online (such as spiders indexing the search engines) and a chat bot is designed to talk to you and answer your questions with pre-defined answers.

How good and relevant those answers are depends a great deal on how well the bot creator programs his or her creation. The bot is only as good as the answers that have been pre-programmed into it.    Unfortunately, we haven’t yet reached the point where these virtual beings can come up with their own answers and improvise on the spot!

A website called PandoraBots allows you to build your own chat bots and publish them to the internet. This was too good for me to pass up and this today I gave birth to Cardinal Richelieu of Three Musketeers fame. You have to be tender with him as I’m just setting him up. At the moment he can only answer three questions but I am hoping to give him more knowledge very soon.   It takes time for a new-born to develop speech skills and question-answering techniques.

I haven’t quite mastered everything on PandoraBots yet but here’s a quick overview of how to quickly set up your own bot and get it to answer some basic questions.

Sign up for an account at PandoraBots and when you sign in for the first time, it will tell you that you haven’t made a bot yet. Click on the link to make a new bot and give it a name.

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My understanding (and I may be wrong) is that the first ones are ones made by other people that you can alter to suit yourself. But I decided to create one with no knowledge or personality so I can build it from scratch. I’ve always wanted to play God.

Once you have given the bot a name, you’ll be given the option to publish it on the PandoraBots site. When it is published, you then have to program some answers into it. The easiest way to do this is to click on the “train” tab.

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In the “human” text box, type a question. I chose the question “Do you think geeks are sexy?” You’ll immediately get the response “I have no answer for that”. You’ll always get “I have no answer for that” for every question you ask, until you program it with an answer.

But now it’s time to give your bot an answer! Just click on “advanced alter response” and when the next screen comes up, type the answer you would like the bot to give, in the template area. Then press “submit”.

But everytime you alter your bot, you will need to re-publish it for the changes to take effect. Then just go to your bot page (click on the bot name and there is a link there to your bot page) and ask it the same question. Your pre-programmed answer should then appear.

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The actual bot is free to create and run. But for a fee, a couple of outside companies can supply you with an animated speaking character to give your bot that extra sign of life! But I was pretty disappointed with the sparse offerings and decided it wasn’t worth $10 a month to have a stupid kid cartoon character pretending to be the great Cardinal. If the time ever comes when you can upload your own character or design on the site, then I WOULD be interested.

You’re probably wondering by this stage what the point is of having a bot. You’ve probably dismissed it as a child’s toy. Well you would be wrong to do that. Companies for example can benefit from having a bot in many ways. If you own a company, you can program your entire help pages or FAQ into the bot and let your customers talk to it and ask it questions. The bot would then fire back the answers. If you give the bot an unique name and animated character, it can be quite a talking point. How many of your business rivals would be able to boast that they have Cardinal Richelieu in charge of their customer service department?

At one point, you could even have turned your PandoraBot into an AIM Messenger bot but apparently AIM has done something to disable that feature (pesky AIM!). I am hoping the feature comes back soon and if it does, I’ll profile it here on Geeks Are Sexy.

There’s also so much more on the PandoraBots site that I haven’t touched on yet which might form the basis of another article in itself.    PandoraBots.com is a site that you need to spend quite some time browsing around and trying out what works and what doesn’t.   I have only barely scratched the surface here.

The whole concept of artificial intelligence is still something which is being researched and developed all the time (we’re still a long way off unfortunately from Hal 9000 in Kubrick’s “2001”). Maybe you would take a look at the PandoraBot project, subscribe to the various mailing lists, chat to the participants, see what research is being done and realise you alone know how to progress the bots to the next level? It only takes one person to move everything forward to the next stage.

If you decide to make your own bot, leave the URL here in the comments so I can ask it questions!    Meanwhile I am off to program the Cardinal in the finer points of computer programming!


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