Fictional Chatbots: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Last Updated on October 9, 2020 by Sean B

Some of the greatest inspirations for chatbots come from robots and computers in Science Fiction, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe had two of the greatest. The first being Marvin, a robot with the personality of a human, including the Depression and Paranoia that can often accompany it. The second is Deep Thought, a Super-Computer programmed to calculate the ultimate question.

I’ll go into both in this article, talking about who they were and how they inspired chatbot and AI development. But first, I want to talk about their creation.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Don't forget your towel

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the rest of the Hitchhiker’s story, is one of the funniest Sci-Fi stories ever created. If you don’t believe me, then watch the movie, watch the TV series, read the book, or even listen to the original.

Douglas Adams was a genius, there’s no other way to put it. He died on May 11, 2001 in Santa Barbara, California from a Heart Attack. Not only did he create the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he also wrote the Dirk Gently novels, which have been adapted into a hilarious new TV show by the BBC that is available on Hulu.

Created for Radio

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Complete Radio SeriesThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a brilliant Science Fiction series that was originally created by Douglas Adams as a program for BBC Radio 4 in 1978. The original series contained six episodes and was very well received and had a large audience for a Radio Program, despite the rather low-key advertising it was given. In fact, the program did so well that a Christmas Special was broadcast during the holidays that year.

The first series, called The First Phase, was rebroadcast multiple times and eventually was pressed onto an LP and sold, written as a book, and turned into a stage show. The popularity of the program also led to a second series, called The Second Phase, that added another five episodes. The Christmas Special acted as a bridge between the two series and was considered a twelfth episode of the story.

The continued success led to the eventual developments of four more radio series years later. Series three, called The Third Phase, was broadcast in 2004, and the fourth and fifth series, called Mostly Harmless and So Long and Thanks For All The Fish, were both released in 2005.

The sixth series, called The Hexagonal Phase, was broadcast in 2018 and included none other than Stephen Hawking as the voice of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book itself.

The Novels

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Complete Book Series

Adams wrote five Hitchhiker’s Guide novels that are somehow still considered to be a trilogy by many. These were based on the BBC 4 Radio Series and largely followed the plots of the series.

My favorite description of the book inside the book comes of course from the book itself:

“The ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ is a wholly remarkable book … In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, it has already supplanted the great Encyclopedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper and secondly it has the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.”

The TV Show

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy TV Series

The BBC produced, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy TV Series, was broadcast in 1981 on BBC Two and is currently available on Hulu. It follows the plot of the Radio series and books. It’s entertaining and of course funny, but very dated.

It features some interesting cameos of Douglas Adams, so if you watch the series, keep an eye out for him.

The Movie

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Movie

The movie adaptation took a few different turns than the book, as movie adaptations often do. But it’s still hilarious and it shows a modernized version of Marvin that makes him look a little like an Apple Engineered Robot.

In the movie, Arthur Dent is still trying to prevent his house from getting bulldozed when his friend Ford Prefect, an alien who is working a new version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, takes him aboard a spaceship. This happens just as a Vogon fleet is about to destroy the planet so a hyperspace bypass can be built.

And things get stranger from there. We meet some of the standard characters, Zaphod Beeblebrox (whose second head is tucked under his neck in the movie), Marvin the Paranoid Android, and Trillian, a woman from Earth who Marvin had a brief relationship with. But we’re also introduced to a few new characters and concepts, including Humma Kavula and the Point of View Gun.

hitchhikers guide hulu show

The Upcoming Hulu Show

Set to debut in 2021, Hulu’s modernization of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was announced early in 2020. The series has already been given a second season according to the fine folks at Space.com. Not much is known yet, but the series is apparently in production.

Marvin the Paranoid Android and Arthur Dent

Marvin the Paranoid Android

Marvin was my favorite character in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There was something hilarious about a robot with Depression, plus he had some of the best lines in the series.

“Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they ask me to take you to the bridge. Call that job satisfaction, ‘cause I don’t”

Marvin hates just about everything and everyone, he has no respect for anyone and offers up criticism, sarcasm, and insults to everyone whenever he has the chance. He also complains about his own situation at every turn, whining about pains that he has, and the fact that despite his huge brain and massive intelligence, he is still treated like an expendable servant.

Maybe I just like him because so many of my friends are the same way. But Marvin’s depression also spoke to me, so maybe I like him because I am so much like him.

In any case, Marvin was more human than any other robot created before him, real or imaginary. In fact, Marvin is more human than most used car salesmen and politicians that I’ve met.

What Marvin Added

Marvin inspired programmers to start putting more emotional content into their chatbots and robots, and in the future, this could potentially lead to an actual depressed chatbot. That part of chatbot personalities may not be the ultimate goal, but it would certainly add an element of humanity to them.

He displayed more humanity in the stories than Zaphod Beeblebrox in my opinion. Zaphod sent Marvin off to battle a giant robot called the Frogstar Scout Robot Class D, so that he could make his escape at one point.

In my opinion, Marvin inspired the addition of Emotions and Emotional Intelligence to modern robots and chatbots. He also taught many programmers that adding humor and flaws to a chatbot is what makes them more like us.

Deep Thought from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Deep Thought

In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Deep Thought is a supercomputer built by the Magratheans and programmed by Lunkwill and Fook and programmed to produce the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. The answer as we all know is 42, but the problem arose when this confusing answer baffled everyone involved. It turns out that the question was too vague, so Deep Thought designed a computer that could calculate the question that went along with the answer.

The new computer that Deep Thought created was so complex that natural life formed a part of its operating system. The new computer was of course the planet Earth, which was destroyed by the Vogons just a few seconds before delivering the Ultimate Question.

What Deep Thought Added

Deep Thought directly inspired a number of computers and chatbots. Feng-hsiung Hsu from Carnegie Mellon University built a chess computer named Deep Thought which he continued to work on at IBM. Eventually, the final version of the computer named Deep Blue went on to defeat Chess Grandmaster Bent Larsen in 1998. Deep Blue was part of the inspiration behind The IBM Watson Assistant.

There was also a chatbot that was created to work over IRC named Deep Thought.

Finally, though this might be a leap, I believe that Deep Thought was part of the inspiration for the name of a type of thinking that we call Deep Thinking. Thinking and Deep Learning. Deep Thinking is a more basic way of using the mind that results in the greater discoveries and the “eureka moments” in the scientific fields.

Deep Learning is a form of Machine Learning that is inspired by the way the human brain thinks. It is controlled by Algorithms inspired by the brain’s structure and function. The idea is to allow computers with Deep Learning to learn and grow like a human brain. Essentially Deep Learning is the computer version of Deep Thinking.

Whether the terms being used were inspired by Deep Thought, the concepts behind them certainly sound like the way Deep Thought itself thinks and learns.

In Closing

As you might be able to tell, I’m a fan of the series, and I think Douglas Adams was hilarious. Marvin has always been my favorite character in the books and I loved seeing him in both the TV series and the movie. I’m looking forward to how he is portrayed in the upcoming Hulu production as well.

Both Marvin and Deep Thought arguably made a significant impact on the developments of both AI and chatbots, whether their impact is widely recognized or not.

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2 thoughts on “Fictional Chatbots: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

  1. Wow, this is really interesting! I had no idea that Marvin indirectly inspired chatbots, and that chatbots could have some added human emotions. That sounds very much like science fiction, but it is happening now. That’s actually really cool.
    I have heard of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but I have never read it or watched the series or movie, and now that I read your article, I feel like I missed out on something. It sounds like the kind of humor I would appreciate. So, I am going to check out a few episodes.
    Marvin sounds like an intriguing character. I love it when non human characters in books display many human emotions and often come out more human than any of the human chacters, in a way adding important lessons that may otherwise be missed. Well, that is just how I see it 😉 I am a writer, so perhaps I got a little carried away 😉 but it certainly looks as if Marvin added a lot to the series (and chatbots, and emoticons)

    Reply
    • Christine,

      Thanks for the comment, I highly recommend Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As for whether Marvin (and Deep Thought for that matter) inspired chatbots, I think that Marvin showed developers that flaws are what make us human and what made Marvin an interesting character.

      I hope you enjoy the books if you decide to read them.

      Sean

      Reply

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