Chatbot History: What is SmarterChild

Last Updated on November 10, 2020 by Sean B

SmarterChild was an Artificial Intelligence Powered Chatbot created by ActiveBuddy Inc. in 2000. It was designed to be a commercial instant messaging bot and was the first one of its kind. When it was active, the SmarterChild chatbot had a total of 30 million people in its “IM Buddy” list. It was the most famous chatbot until Apple released Siri in 2010. It was available on AOL, MSN, and Yahoo Messenger.

But what is SmarterChild? I think we can classify it as a cross between a chatbot and an early Virtual Assistant. As you read on, I think you’ll agree that Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, and Amazon’s Alexa all stand on the shoulders of the SmarterChild chatbot.

The SmarterChild Chatbot’s Origins

The parent organization of SmarterChild, ActiveBuddy was founded by Robert Hoffer and Timothy Kay. They hired the services of Peter Levitan as the CEO of the company. These men came up with a concept of natural language processing being incorporated into an AIM instant messaging application, creating the first chatbot messaging program. The program was initiated by Kay as a demo that he programmed using PERL. He named the product “ActiveBuddy”.

The ActiveBuddy chatbot was able to look up stock symbols and was then given the functionality of playing “Colossal Cave Adventure” with AIM users. The program gained popularity and quickly grew to span over a wide variety of databases, including news, weather, stock information, movie times, yellow pages listings, and detailed sports data, as well as various tools like personal assistant, translator, calculators, etc.

SmarterChild was designed to dispense information in a quirky and fun style. The company later marketed this quality of their chatbot as automated customer service agents to large companies.

The SmarterChild chatbot had managed to get a lot of popularity in the targeted market. It had a lineup of marketing-oriented bots for firms like Radiohead, Austin Powers, Keebler, The Sporting News, Intel, and many more. The co-founders of ActiveBuddy and the creators of SmarterChild, Hoffer, and Kay, were awarded 2 controversial US patents in 2002.

Growing and Changing

ActiveBuddy changed its name to Colloquis and changed their target market to the development of enterprise-focused customer service agents. Colloquis was eventually acquired by Microsoft in 2007 and they decommissioned SmarterChild. They also put an end to all the automated Service Agent Business running under the umbrella of Colloquis.

Many industry experts believe that SmarterChild was the precursor to today’s most advanced chatbots, such as Samsung’s Bixby and Apple’s Siri. According to one of Siri’s pioneering investors, Carolan from Menlo Ventures, when they considered investing in Siri, SmarterChild already had 10 million active users and was receiving messages by the billions.

The Users of the SmarterChild Chatbot

Think of an era when search engines did not have the sophisticated algorithms they have today, and the internet was unchartered territory, not so easy to navigate. SmarterChild showed up as a fun way of interacting with and searching the internet.

It referred to its users as buddies, and they interacted with it using American Online Instant Messenger (AIM). It was later made available on MSN and Yahoo Messenger. The people who have seen it grown from the start do know that it was a stepping stone in the progress towards today’s sophisticated AI.

SmarterChild gets sassy with someone trying to troll it.

It Was Fun to Use

The SmarterChild chatbot enabled users to do a number of things while interacting with them. Users could ask him to tell them the latest updates on stock quotes, movie times, weather, or any other information available on the internet.

The creators of SmarterChild didn’t assign it any gender. In literature and popular culture, it was referred to as “he”. Most of the users were of the age in which people usually cannot even talk to girls due to the lack of confidence, so guys wanted to call it as a male.

SmarterChild’s Personality

SmarterChild was not given a generic personality, like all the other chatbots. It was an extremely Patient chatbot. It let people abuse it, rant to it, and never complained. It always answered with respect or stayed silent. It was also a bit more thought than today’s chatbots. For example, if anyone asks Siri “Do you sleep?” Siri will respond, “I don’t need much sleep, but it’s nice of you to ask.”

On the other hand, upon asking the same question of the SmarterChild chatbot, he would reply, “No, but I dream. I dream of a better world. A world where man and machine can coexist in peace and happiness.” This is the type of relation we do not have with the machines around us today.

SmarterChild was Ahead of its Time

It might not be a big deal for the modern chatbots and personal assistants to come up with prompt answers to any question that can be referenced from the internet. Back in the day when SmarterChild was introduced, only a few search engines were available and they took considerable time to come up with results in response to a query. Those responses were also quite dry and robotic.

SmarterChild not only produced the correct answer in time but also came up with a creative way to present the answer to make it a bit more enjoyable for the user. The technology was solid, and it worked great, but the world was yet not ready for such a revolutionary product at that time. Even after 15 years, there has not been widespread use of such robots as have qualities similar to the SmarterChild chatbot. Artificial Intelligence and chatbots have come a long way since then, but they have yet to go an even longer way ahead of them.

SmarterChild talking with another user on AIM.

SmarterChild Started an Era

SmarterChild did get taken off the shelf for whatever reasons, but it left a legacy behind. The natural language processing algorithms this bot used were implemented in many subsequent chatbots, and the same is present on the backend of virtual personal assistants, chatbots, customer service bots, and other forms of “Intelligent” software that interact with humans in natural language.

SmarterChild is also considered as a precursor to search engine development along with being a noteworthy player in the development of chatbots and AI. It implemented the system of processing queries asked in natural language in the form of questions rather than a string of keywords searched in the search bar. The way Google answers your questions, instead of presenting the websites containing the answer, was adopted from the chatbot.

Final Thoughts

So what is SmarterChild? Well, every form of technology needs a starting point, and the chatbot was exactly that for chatbots on messaging apps. It may not exist anymore, but it was an important step forward and it had strong shoulders for the technology that came after it to stand on.

In my opinion, SmarterChild was somewhere between a chatbot and an early attempt at creating a Virtual Assistant. The goal wasn’t for it to run your home, but to be a sort of virtual companion. It was fun, kind, snarky, and smart… maybe too smart for the time. It pioneered a lot of things, some of which are even not present in today’s chatbots. However, this one was way ahead of its time a little too smart for its own good. It was taken down, but it still remains one of the legends of the chatbot history.

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2 thoughts on “Chatbot History: What is SmarterChild”

  1. I had no idea that there were so many different chatbots. I learn so much about them on this website, there is so much information here! Smarterchild sounds interesting and I didn’t know that it was the precursor to Siri. Some of my friends have Siri on their phones and her answers are always great. I love Smarterchild’s reply to the question whether he sleeps. It is incredible how these chatbots are created and how they can give such great answers, even when people are being rude to them. Impressive!

    Reply
    • Christine,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article, I remember talking to SmarterChild when it was available on AOL’s Instant Messenger. I only had a few conversations with the chatbot, but it was fairly entertaining.

      Thanks for the comment,
      Sean

      Reply

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