Monday, April 14, 2008

Do Benjamin Franklin Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Recently, I was reading Bill Turkel's blog and came across a discussion on the Turing test as it relates to lunch time chats with historical figures. Bill asks the question, "What challenges would you encounter when trying to create an Eliza-style simulation of ... historical figures? Which would be most or least likely to pass a Turing test and why?"

I immediately had two different thoughts: I first thought of an experience I had several weeks ago while pricing out Walt Disney World accommodations on their website. While navigating around the site, suddenly a pop-up window appeared, asking if I would like to speak to a Disney representative. I did have a few questions and so I clicked on the 'yes' button and a chat window immediately loaded. I asked my questions, received a few generic and ultimately unhelpful answers, resolved to just call Disney Sports like I'd been told to do in the first place, thanked the 'representative' and received the response, "Have a magical day!". As I was sitting on hold with Disney Sports several minutes later, I began to think... How did I know that I had been talking to a real person? They had given generic answers to specific keywords, and ultimately could not answer my questions.

My second thought, appealing to the much less academic side of my brain, was remembering the season three episode of The Office which featured a Benjamin Franklin impersonator, caught somewhere between his virtuous Founding Father persona, and his own true, slightly sleazy, self.

Immediately, the idea for the Benjamin Franklin Bot was born.

My goal was to create an artificial intelligence persona that could pass as Benjamin Franklin if asked questions about his life. I think, to a certain extent, I have pulled that off. By using the framework of the A.L.I.C.E. Artificial Intelligence Markup Language and altering Ben's responses to sound more like how we would imagine Ben Franklin to be, I have created something that can answer many basic questions about Ben Franklin's life, his inventions, his beliefs, and America in the Revolutionary era. After that, it starts to go wrong.

The Ben Franklin bot seems to be less Ben Franklin than an AI bot with another personality tacked on that just happens to be Mr Franklin. One thing I've learned from reading through several days worth of logs from all the friends that I've duped into chatting with him is that no one can resist arguing with Benjamin Franklin and, if you argue long enough, eventually he will admit that he's a robot. Which is not very Franklin-esque.

Is my Benjamin Franklin doomed to the same fate as The Office's version, or can his personality ultimately be changed? I'm really not sure, but we can definitely try. I'm releasing him as The Ben Franklin Bot 1.0; over time, as more people chat with him (and eventually get into an argument and call him names), he can be trained to be a better Ben Franklin. So, do me a favor and try him out.

But don't be surprised if he threatens to annihilate your bloodline during the robot revolution.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Virtual Memory

This week, the U.S. National Archive in partnership with has unveiled a new Interactive Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The project used over 6000 images of the Vietnam Memorial Wall to create a fully searchable tool that allows visitors to the website to search for the name of a friend or loved one killed in the Vietnam War. Additionally, the website works as a type of memory project, allowing users to enter in a story or tribute for any of the people listed on the wall.

This project is an excellent example of how digital archiving and online memory projects can join together to create a highly relevant and much-needed accessible memorial for a national event. Let's hope that this is not the last memorial project for the National Archive.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Let's do the time warp...

As part of our digital history class' final project, we are creating an interactive exhibit, ambiguously named 'The Sky'. For my contribution, I have been working with MIT's SIMILE Timeline API to create an interactive timeline of the Cold War. SIMILE Timeline is essentially the Google Maps for temporal data and allows you to map out events on a scrolling timeline. It's surprisingly user-friendly and provides most of the code in copy-and-paste format so that users simply have to tweak it to get it to work the way they want it to. Users do have to write the "event source" XML file to place events on to the timeline, however third-party applications that generate this code have popped up on the web. Of course, I only noticed this after I'd spent an entire day writing my event source; oh well, good experience.
Though the project is not live on the web yet, here is what it looks like. It's easy to scroll through and find events and each event links to the Wikipedia article on the subject. Nifty!

So, if you find yourself with some free time, give SIMILE Timeline a try. The documentation is not complete, but if you do a Google search for what you want, you'll come up with plenty of people willing to tell you how.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Evolution of the Internet (or, What Has Microsoft Done For You Lately?)

In the ten years that Google has been searching the web, it has become fundamental to how many of us live our lives. In fact, it has even gained verb status; we no longer say that we're going to search, look up, or research a topic. Instead, we Google it. Don't know where your buddy's house is? Google it. Need a picture of Catherine of Aragon for your presentation? Google Images has what you need. Five years ago, putting together a research bibliography was a task involving multiple databases and multiple trips to the library. Today, Google Books and Google Scholar are all you need. In fact, this blog is published through Blogger, which is owned by, you guessed it, Google.

As we all know, Google is not the first Internet search engine. I remember first discovering Yahoo in 1995. Lo and behold, I could find the Bert is Evil website in seconds! For the next five or so years I remember shifting loyalties and heated debates as to whether Excite, Ask Jeeves, or Alta Vista was the best for your searching needs. And then Google hit and there was no looking back.

So, what's the point in rehashing all this recent history? This week, Microsoft announced a 44.6 million dollar bid to buy the fallen search engine mogul Yahoo. To put it in the simplest terms: WTF? What would tired old Microsoft want with the struggling Yahoo?

Few would argue that Microsoft has turned into a bit of a one trick pony... and a sick one at that, since the release of the Vista operating system last year. Microsoft has lost their connection to the social technological revolutions that are driving the market right now; even their much-trumpeted Zune MP3 player social networks have failed spectacularly due to the fact that no one will admit to actually owning one. Conversely, despite appearing to have dropped off the radar, Yahoo is currently working on/acquiring a number of social networking projects that they hope will keep them competitive with the Google empire. Remember the social bookmarking site or the photo sharing site Flickr? How about the social networking tool Upcoming? Though these projects are much less heralded than their Google counterparts, I would bet that Microsoft is hoping that the the acquisition of Yahoo will provide them with a much-needed social networking boost.

So, what does this all have to do with history? Um.... I don't know. But in an industry where history is made overnight, I will be quite interested in watching this escalating war for Internet supremacy over the few months.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Out of Body Experience

As anyone who lives with me for any length of time quickly finds out, I will never get tired of listening to Counting Crows. Through Adam Duritz's raspy voice and soulful lyrics, I have been to a hundred places that I will likely never set foot in. From Baltimore in a rainstorm, to the desert oasis delightfully named Pioneertown, to many sleepless nights in Los Angeles, Duritz's lyrics evoke a strong sense of place and time that never fails to captivate me.

I have found that same sense of captivation these past few weeks in the city of Seattle.

Just north of downtown and east of the harbor, one stumbles across a discordant area of outdated amusement park rides, a monorail station, several large arenas and theatres, a rather lackluster food court inside the Center House (complete with a tacky mural full of smiling colourful people), and an enormous collection of gift shops and food vendors. Standing proud (and hundreds of feet shorter than the nearby downtown skyscrapers) within this jumble is Seattle's landmark, The Space Needle. Signs everywhere proclaim this area as the Seattle Center, but never once do they explain why it is here.

In 1962, Seattle hosted the World's Fair. The Space Needle was built as the icon for the city and fairgoers would pay the equivalent of a day's wages to take the elevator to the top. Predicting the need for increased public transit between the fairgrounds and the downtown hotels, the monorail was built to ferry visitors between the two. As one enters the Center House, now faded and peeling, you can almost imagine the seats filled with families, the paint fresh and vibrant. The Seattle Center is a living remnant of a more dynamic period in the city's history, a time of pride and excitement in progress and human potential.

While walking through the Seattle Center, I am nearly overwhelmed by a sense of time and place; the history of the location dominates over the present structure. It is easy to look past the outdated facade and feel the energy of 1962.

The 1962 Seattle World's Fair has the regrettable legacy of being known as one of the least impressive and profitable of the world's fairs held in the 1950's and 1960's. While parts of the site crumble, parts have been taken over by new attractions such as the Experience Music Project. The lease on the Fun Forest, the amusement park, ends in 2009 and the park is slated for dismantlement and redevelopment. It appears that the sense of place will soon be gone, changed into something different; however, it will likely be a long time before the Seattle Center loses it's place in the memories of those who love it.