Like the term “robot” or “AI,” “chatbot” covers a wide spectrum of machine intelligence, from eerily smart digital assistants to the equivalent of multiple-choice quiz delivery systems. That’s why they’re so much fun to mess with: you don’t know if you’ll get something that can explain the finer plot points of The Matrix to you, or something that responds to every query with a random Google search. The SXSW festival app has a chatbot, and unsurprisingly, it’s pretty dumb. But occasionally, you’ll find a topic where the creators decided to specifically craft a response — and one of them is my death date.
The bot is named Abby, and I started our conversation with the big question, asking her the meaning of life. She responded with a boilerplate block of text plugging the SXSW Platinum badge. I then asked if Barack Obama was planning a coup, which she handled with a diplomatic “I’m not quite sure” — better than Google’s answer, at least.
I was perfectly willing to accept this, until I gave Abby a more personal question. “When will I die?” I asked, ready for an “I’m not sure about that” or a death metal concert listing. Her response was a weird flicker of Siri-like intelligence in a glorified search engine. “I hope it won’t happen soon,” she told me. “I am dead,” I told her later. “Sorry to hear that,” Abby responded.
As it turns out, there are a few things Abby can answer specifically. If I ask who I am, she’ll say I’m “obviously someone who is on the cutting edge of technology.” If I ask whether she’s friends with Siri, she’ll diplomatically note that she’s “made lots of new friends so far.” But she’s short on the obvious chatbot tricks: there’s no witty reply if you ask about living in the Matrix, and asking her to tell you a joke gets you search results for “a” and “joke.”
The point is, I can’t get a bead on Abby, and it’s maddening. I have a feeling this is going to be happening a lot with chatbots in the future, until they’ve fully graduated from the novelty stage — which might not happen for a long time. I just hope the other events I cover won’t start baiting me into asking their scheduling apps about my darkest fears too.