As I get older, I'm getting used to being "scooped" on new technology by my students and my kids. Today's discovery comes via one of my students' blogs (thanks, David
David wrote about getting a weather forecast via AIM, using SmarterChild
. Since I know he, like me, uses a T-Mobile Sidekick phone, I was intrigued. AIM is much faster and less bandwidth-intensive than the web, especially on a GPRS data connection, so it seemed worth exploring.
So I went to the SmarterChild web site, where it told me I could preview the service by adding SmarterChild to my buddy list, and saying "hi." Moments, later, I was having a "chat" with the robot. It greeted me by my IM name, then asked if I'd answer a few questions. I told it "yes," and it asked me my name, whether I attended school, whether I worked (and at what), what my hobbies were, and finally my age. (Interestingly, on age it gave me three choices; over 17, 13-17, and under 13. Clearly this is a service targeted at kids, which makes sense given IM demographics.)
I was then given a menu of options--info (news, movies, weather), library (encyclopedia, thesaurus, shakespeare), fun (rate yourself, ASCII art, horoscopes, +), tools (notepad, translations, conversions), join in (polls, stats on use, "tell me about a crush" +). So far, I've used it check the local weather forecast (using zip code), and to convert 30 degrees celsius into degrees fahreheit (86). Interface seems quite straightforward, and the response time is zippy. Looks worth the $9.95/year to me, given how much I rely on my Sidekick when I'm out of the house.
Beyond the immediate utility, however, it's got me thinking about "robot companions" in virtual environments. I've been hanging out a bit on Joi Ito's IRC channel lately, where there are a growing number of robots in the mix. Aaron Swartz's datum provides reference services, Joi's own jibot notifies him of new Technorati links, and shorten creates shortened url aliases so that long urls posted to the channel can be easily accessed. Right now, these robots are pretty dumb. They speak only when spoken to, and answer only when you use "proper syntax." SmarterChild seems more flexible in terms of natural language queries, but it's still dumb, and responsive only. How long until these real-time robots start pushing the boundaries of the Turing Test, though?