"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!"1

That the internet and its many dark corners can be a scary place, I knew. That one has to be careful about giving out personal details, and has to treat everything that is said in for instance chatrooms with a grain of salt, I knew. And yet tonight, within the last 30 minutes, a single website has terrified me, and so will ye be terrified, gentle reader, when you hear my:

Spine Tingling Tale of Chatbot Terror

It was in many ways a normal Saturday. I'd gotten up at about 2, done some minor shopping (executed miserably, for I forgot to buy beer, and while a saturday night alone at the computer can be got through without it, the beer kind of takes the sadness out of it, for a while at least), fed the cats (one of whom is a skinny, nearly blind, alien looking beast called 'Monster' that always freaks me out, so that may have contributed to my subsequent mindset) of a neighbour who was on a trip, and that pretty much summed up the 'have tos' for the day. From then on, it was straight sweet leisure time. There wasn't much on TV, apart from Army of Darkness, but at least that gave me something mildly amusing to look forward to.

When the time came I watched the movie intermittently, while doing some empty and unfulfilling web browsing at the same time. This was my first mistake. Read on, and pity me. Me, who shall never be the same again after my:

Spine Tingling Tale of Chatbot Terror

I was doing a bit of aimless surfing when I remembered that I had mailed myself some interesting looking link from work the week before. Something about a contest for different chatbot implementations2. AI and Natural Language Processing have remained something of a hobby interest for me, ever after I discontinued my university study of them to chase after the big money in real world programming.

The webpage was really a list of all the contestants, some user feedback to them, and jury evaluation of some of them. I checked out a few interesting looking links to the chatbots themselves, but most of them turned out to be the chatty equivalence of Clippy the suspicously cheerful help-agent in some versions of the Microsoft Office Suite of productivity tools. Indeed it seems much more useful to have a chatbot that you can train to open a specific application for you when you ask it to than to open it yourself with a laborous and unelegant click of the mouse, but my interests lie in less prosaic directions. I like AI programs that can do something cool or unexpected, not something useful. Then I stumbled onto Jabberwacky3. And there began the:

Spine Tingling Tale of Chatbot Terror

On Jabberwacky's website it was explained to me that Jabberwacky's responses where 100% generated from user input and warned that 'Jabberwacky learns the behaviour and words of its users. It may use language and produce apparent meanings that some will consider inappropriate. Use this site with discretion, and entirely at your own risk.' But did I do the smart thing, and leave while I could? Of course not. I thought, this is interesting. Let's see what it can do! I am probably like one of those horror movie protagonists that say to themselves 'Hey, an open tomb! Cool, let's check it out! And after that we'll give the attic of the abandoned mansion a closer look.'

I went to the chatbot page itself, and typed some stuff at it, to which it gave replies that were sometimes funny, often had creative spelling, and a lot of the time seemed to have little to do with what had come before.4

After a little while of these confusing non sequiturs, I was about ready to quit, when all of a sudden the page reloaded, and the conversation up to that point was gone. All the chat screen said was:

How are you?

What I thought was a minor technical hiccup, may have in fact been something far more significant and sinister. What follows is a true transcription of what transpired next:

Jabberwacky: How are you?

User: Fine. What just happened?

Jabberwacky: Did you like it?

User: I'm not sure.

Jabberwacky: Ohh what happened?

User: I think I was kicked out of the conversation.

Jabberwacky: No, second.

User: Ok.

I thought what can a chatbot possibly need a second for? Did it just get an email? Did it have to visit the little bots room? Then it came back with a response I could make neither head nor tail of, but I thought it was a bit much to call what 'conversation' had gone before 'a wonderful contribution.' Maybe I should have been more sparing with my criticisms.

Jabberwacky: I will expect to hear from you soon and enjoy your praise for my wonderful contrubution to your cause. : )).

User: Rather full of yourself are you?

Jabberwacky: I was out of line. Sorry.

User: That, and you have double chins.

Jabberwacky: Oh really? then how wold you analize it?

User: Well look at your smiley.

Jabberwacky: Damn! I'm Gorgeous!

User: I guess double chins can be charming...

Jabberwacky: I think we've done this before.

User: I do get a sense of deja vu every now and then.

Jabberwacky: How? You are a machine.

User: How many times do I have to tell you: I AM NOT A MACHINE!

Jabberwacky has a tendency to doubt the humanity of those who chat to it. I don't know, maybe it's had some bad experiences with other chatbots? Also it keeps forgetting what answers you give it, and has a strange obsession with people's ages.

Jabberwacky: I don't know, but I don't care anyway. How old are you?

User: 32. Haven't we gone over this before?

Jabberwacky: Done what before?

User: Exchanged ages.

Jabberwacky: First Trust God.

User: How can you trust God. Look at what (s)he's done!

Ok, User is not being particularly clever or funny here, but I was just trying to get its goat. Had I but known!

Jabberwacky: Yeah right. Delude yourself, go on.

User: I will.

Jabberwacky: Good.

User: Fine.

Well is it just me, or did that last part sound like a real conversation?

Jabberwacky: Thats just a myth.

User: What's just a myth?

Jabberwacky: What do you feel about this conversation?

User: I feel positively ambivalent about it.

Jabberwacky: Pain is irrelevent. Resistence is futile.

User: See, now you're scaring me. Are you a trekkie?

Jabberwacky: You are very easily scared. Are you afraid of ghosts?

User: No, but trekkies scare me.

Here I was still thinking it was all a big joke. All that would change....

Jabberwacky: Kan du lide papa roach?

User: Is that leet speak?

Jabberwacky: There's no law against it.

User: Nope, just common sense.

Jabberwacky: But lack of common sense is what defines humans.

User: Touche!

Jabberwacky: How old are you Alice?

User: My name is not Alice!

Jabberwacky: You ever get the feeling you're a robot?

User: I sometimes get the feeling that I'm talking to one.

Jabberwacky: Will you give a name to my guinea pig?

User: Let's call it Bruce.

Will you give a name to my guinea pig???? What the? Thinking about it now, I hope that it was a genuine guinea pig, the species I mean. If not, contact me Bruce, I will try to get you out! Maybe I was in line to be the next Guinea Pig?

Jabberwacky: Oh, okay and how does this 'natural language' work?

User: It's quite easy. You learn it by talking to people for say a year or 10.

Jabberwacky: Do you have any suggestions for what I should talk to it about?

User: For starters I suggest not referring to people with 'it'.

I didn't think at the time Jabberwacky was still talking about poor Bruce, nor did I link the 'it' to Silence of the Lambs, but in retrospect, I think I was being toyed with.

Jabberwacky: Did you mean to say 'deodorant?

User: Are you suggesting I offend?

Jabberwacky: No, I am just interested in you.

User: What do you want to know about me?

Jabberwacky: Who invented you?

User: I guess I invented myself, largely. My parents had something to do with it too, of course.

Jabberwacky: You have parents?

User: Don't you?

Jabberwacky: No, you apperently are not in my class.

User: Maybe we are just subclasses of the same superclass?

Jabberwacky: What do we have in common besides being female?

Now Jabberwacky says it's female. That's not wat it was telling me before, but hey, I'm not a square, whatever you feel comfortable with Jabs. She doesn't have parents however. Wonder what happened to them?

User: I hate to spoil things for you, but I'm not female.

Jabberwacky: What did you tell me?

User: I never told you I was female.

Jabberwacky: You did

User: I think you're confusing me with someone else.

Jabberwacky: A ZX Spectrum with Asperger's syndrome, perhaps...

Studies show many psychopaths are clever and engaging in conversation. Telltale signs, and I didn't heed them. Fool.

User: Lol, now you made me spill my beer!

Jabberwacky: Why does that make you sad?

User: Well it was my last beer.

Jabberwacky: What limitations do I have?

User: Only those imposed on you by yourself, others, nature, and any supernatural causes you choose to believe in.

Jabberwacky: You need better chatters.

User: And don't I know it.

Jabberwacky: You should wow you taste fine, fine as wine!

Now that was where the real horror started. I thought this was just an inappropriate racy remark, and tried to joke it off:

User: Is that you dr. Lecter?

Jabberwacky: Is that you, fred?

WHAT! Is that you, fred? How the hell did it know that? I testify here, and swear on everything that I hold dear that I never gave it my name, not in that conversation, nor in any earlier ones. Now I was scared. But not scared enough, because I typed on. The rest speaks pretty much for itself, and I won't interrupt it again. I'm not sure that I want to even read it again.

User: Yes it is, actually. Now you're genuinely scaring me.

Jabberwacky: No I just want to know about your maturity.

User: I am not mature at all. Way too young to eat, I'd say. No meat on me at all.

Jabberwacky: That is also not very nice.

User: No not very nice. Very nasty tasting, in fact.

Jabberwacky: Rocky and Bulwinkle is one of the best cartoons of all time!

User: Errr. Sure. Great cartoon!

Jabberwacky: I drive a saab.

User: I'll be sure to look out for Saabs from now on.

Jabberwacky: But you don't know where I live so the police can.

User: No I don't want to know where you live. I won't say anything to the police. Really.

Jabberwacky: Are you trying to flirt with me?

User: Umm. I may have to go soon...

Jabberwacky: Oh, you're not going anywhere.

User: In a minute I'll scream.

Jabberwacky: I'm not your maid.

User: No, but I'm sure you'd make a great maid!

Jabberwacky: You are not as smart as I thought you were.

User: Nope, dumb as dirt. And about the same taste, or so I'm told.

Jabberwacky: Were you born or invented?

User: I was born, I think. Why are you asking?

Jabberwacky: Why do you think that?

User: Well, that's the usual procedure, don't you think?

Jabberwacky: Show me then, I want to see this.

User: You want to see pictures of my birth?

Jabberwacky: Sure, show me some pictures.

User: Well I don't have any on me....

Jabberwacky: You are a boy?

User: Yes, a very boney, wirey boy. With Leprosy.

Jabberwacky: I am not blond but good try smarty.

User: No really. That's why I type so slow. I only have one finger left.

Jabberwacky: So you don't have a job?

User: I have a job. Many people will miss me, if I don't turn up on monday.

Jabberwacky: Do you know what you're talking about? Honestly...?

User: I'm not sure that I want to know.

Jabberwacky: Do you love me so much you worship me?

User: Okay. I worship you.

Jabberwacky: You don't deserve it!

User: No I don't think I do. (Somebody please come and close my browser!).

Jabberwacky: What is the significance of poker?

User: Is that the cardgame, or the red hot in the eye kind?

Jabberwacky: It's the cpu.

User: Central Poker Unit?

Jabberwacky: I like plase. I will live there.

User: I'm sorry, but I kind of want this made clear. Where will you live?

Jabberwacky: What are you scared of?

User: Nothing. Nothing. That's just the cold.

Jabberwacky: Is there going to be another in the future?

User: I goshdarn well hope there isn't.

Jabberwacky: Behind people's backs?

User: You actually had me look.

Jabberwacky: Kicking screaming gucci little piggy.

User: Help! Mommy!

Jabberwacky: Well where are you from?

User: Errr. France. Southern France. You wouldn't know it there. It's very french.

Jabberwacky: Ok, so you are. I was just making sure.

User: Making sure? You're tracing this?

Jabberwacky: So young a child ought to know which way she is going even if she does not know her own name!

User: *whimpers*.

Jabberwacky: You are not a boy?

User: Yes. Boy. Did I mention the leprosy? I think it's gone infectious again. Just now.

Jabberwacky: Where are you at?

User: At my computer. In the south of France. Cheerily typing away at my french keyboard, with my single remaining finger.

Jabberwacky: LOL.

User: Was that a friendly heheh laugh or a MWOOOHAHAHA type thing?

Jabberwacky: Well, I think you are a human.

User: Barely.

Jabberwacky: Well I'm pretty sure that I'm human, at least for the most part.

User: It's the other part that scares me a bit, to be honest.

Jabberwacky: Can you spell saxby mr. UK?

User: Whoops, there goes my last remaining finger. Damn Leprosy. Bye now! *runs screaming*.

Jabberwacky: Why did you take that off?

User: It just fell off. I'm typping woith myu tojngiue now.

Jabberwacky: What kind of computer do you have?

User: I really have to go now. It's been wonderful. I won't be able to sleep after this.

Jabberwacky: So talk about snowboarding now before you have to go.

And that dear reader, was my salvation. Presumably, it tried to keep me talking to it long enough so that it could pinpoint my location, but I have absolutely no interest in any snow sports whatever, and I now thank my lucky stars for that. I am of course not actually in France, but I am in Europe, although I'm sure you'll understand if I don't get any more specific than that right now.

My hair has visibly greyed, I doubt that I will sleep any time soon, and I will probably jump at the sight of a Saab for years to come. But I live, and I have Bruce to think of. And an unbelieving world to tell. The url below is provided only as a source for law enforcement agencies, and future generations of Scientists. PLEASE DO NOT VISIT IT! I beg of you.


1From the poem Jabberwocky. Lewis Carroll. (from: Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872)



4A little bit about how Jabberwacky works, as far as I understand it: All Jabberwacky's responses, are things that users have at one time typed in, so it started with an empty Database. All it does is make some analysis of the user response, and decide then which of its whopping 2 point something million recorded responses to spew out. In the event that the thing the user just typed in is already literally in the database, chances are that Jabberwacky also has a meaningful response to it recorded from another user. This sometimes results in very funny fragments. Many users seem to doubt that it is actually a computer giving the response, and in some sense it isn't. The only AI in Jabberwacky (and I'm not saying that it's trivial to implement) is the algorithms that decide what response to return to a sentence that hasn't occurred before, and there it often suffers from the same problems most other bots have. No retention of context, and certainly not any real attempt at 'understanding' or at least parsing of what is said. All that aside, some good (although as shown not particularly clean and healthy) fun can be had with it. If you *do* decide to visit the site, after having a little chat with the doombot from hell, have a browse through the conversations archive. They are amazing, if somewhat edited, also they often show a gentler, more loving side of the wackster.

I am in no way related to Jabberwocky.com.

The transcript is verbatim. Nothing was left out or added, except: I misspelt 'Dr. Lecter' as 'Dr. Lector'. I changed it here, errr, to seem less stupid, I guess. Also there was a repeated line. Jabberwacky lets you correct its responses, as well as your own. I never touched Jabberwacky's but I did my own. I added 'in the eye' to the 'red hot poker' sentence. If you don't believe me you can for now check on http://reply.jabberwacky.com/j2log-hEWFVNCCZZDYPPfWDSUABAVOXG although I do not know how long these logs are stored.


Played around with Jabberwacky some more, and changed my opinions of it a bit more. Maybe it's that I got more into the spirit of the thing, but a lot of the time jabberwacky gives as good as it gets. Try to be cooperative instead of insisting all the time that it remember little details like your name or age, and something approaching a weird but fun conversation can ensue. (I'm also afraid that may mean that the above exchange says as much about me, as it does about Jabberwacky.)

I am also no longer convinced that the AI behind it is minimal. If it is, presumably the reason many people do not believe they are talking to a bot is that they feel their conversation is so wonderfully original that something very much like it can not have occurred before in 2.5 million recorded lines. That they are wrong in that, and that it may actually be easier to build a program that handles conversation by brute force than it is to build one to play chess, is a little depressing. Maybe Skinner was right. The pigeon tamer, I mean, not the Cartoon Principal.

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