The History of Fictional Chatbots

Last Updated on November 10, 2020 by Sean B

Before we get started, let’s acknowledge that all of these characters are fictional. They were created in Science Fiction, but some of them have actually been recreated, or at least mimicked in real life. Some are being listed because the ideas behind them have, in many cases, directly inspired the development of similar technology and greatly impacted the history of chatbots. Others are being listed because they inspired related technologies.

Because Science Fiction is not limited by reality, it inspires all kinds of technological developments. An author draws on reality and their own creativity in order to create a vision of what happens next. These “what if” creations tend to stay in the realm of imagination for many years, but as future scientists, engineers, inventors, and students read their work, seeds are planted. Many times these seeds intermix with others planted by other authors, directors, and creators. Here are a few Sci-Fi creations that I think have directly, or sometimes indirectly, inspired the development of computers, AI technology, and chatbots.

Gulliver's Travels

The Engine from Gulliver’s Travels

The Engine was a device described in Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift back in 1726. It is to my knowledge the first device described anywhere that resembles a modern computer. The Engine generates permutations of word sets and is found (in the fictional world of course) at the Academy of Projectors in Lagado.

The Engine was a hand-crank operated machine that consisted of small wood blocks which were covered by paper that held every word in the language of Lagado, the blocks were connected to each other by wires. As the cranks were turned, the blocks and words shifted places and created phrases that were either sentence fragments or complete sentences. These phrases were written down by scribes and the whole thing was repeated until The Engine had created an entire book.


Learn more about the Engine from Gulliver’s Travels:
Fictional Chatbots: The Engine from Gulliver’s Travels


Rossum's Universal Robots, a play by Karel Čapek.

Rossum’s Universal Robots or R.U.R.

Rossum’s Universal Robots is a play which was written in 1920 and premiered on January 25, 1921 by a Czech author named Karel Čapek. This play was the first appearance of the word “robot” anywhere, and the word robot actually comes from the Czech word for “forced labor” which is robota.

The play takes place in a factory that creates artificial people called robots from synthetic organic material. They are living creatures instead of mechanical creations, and as they begin to think for themselves, an uprising leads to the extinction of the human race.


Learn more about Rossum’s Universal Robots
Fictional Chatbots: R.U.R. Rossum’s Universal Robots


Star Trek Computer

Star Trek Computer / LCARS

Star Trek’s famous “Computer” was perhaps the earliest TV representation of a chatbot, it was first imagined in 1966 and was arguably a complete character within the show. Every interaction the crew had with the ship went through Computer. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, a new computer was imagined for the new ship and crew. LCARS, which stands for Library Computer Access/Retrieval System was introduced in 1987.


Learn more about the Star Trek Computer
Fictional Chatbots: The Star Trek Enterprise Computer – LCARS


HAL-9000

HAL-9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey

First imagined in 1968 by Isaac Asimov in his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL-9000 has been described as the meanest chatbot ever by Mike Feltovic. I’m not sure that’s a fitting title, but HAL was definitely not all that friendly to Dave during some crucial scenes in both the book and the movie that was based on it. Ultra Hal, the 2007 Loebner Prize winner was named after HAL-9000 but wasn’t nearly as homicidal.

You can outfit your Alexa with a HAL-9000 chatbot for free.

The Droids from Star Wars

On May 25th, 1977 the world changed for many. That was the release date of Star Wars, now known as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Star Wars introduced us to two important Droids that are arguably the most famous robots to ever grace the screen. C-3PO, sometimes called See-Threepio, he is often called simply Threepio or 3PO, and R2-D2, or Artoo Detoo, but often called simply Artoo or R2. We’ll cover some of the other Droids in the Star Wars series as well, including BB-8 and K-2SO.

C-3PO is a Protocol Droid, which means that he is programmed for etiquette and protocol, this allows him to help his owners avoid awkward situations when dealing with different civilizations. He also speaks every known language, which aids in his duties.

R2-D2 is an Astromech Droid, which means he was built to help navigate the stars and repair ships, usually from the outside while the ship is flying. He also carried the initial help request from Princess Leia to Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Marvin the Paranoid Android and Arthur Dent

Marvin the Paranoid Android and Deep Thought

Douglas Adams first introduced us to Marvin and Deep Thought in a BBC Radio 4 Program in 1978. Marvin was a robot with the personality of a human, including the Depression and Paranoia that can often accompany it. Deep Thought was a Super-Computer programmed to calculate the ultimate question. Both of them had an impact on how AI and chatbots developed over time.


Learn more about the Marvin and Deep Thought
from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
Fictional Chatbots: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy


A fan replica of KITT from Knight Rider.

KITT from Knight Rider

Knight Rider was a TV show that ran on NBC from 1982-1886 and featured David Hasselhoff as Michael Knight, and KITT, a car run by an AI Supercomputer that was almost indestructible. KITT was designed by a self-made billionaire. So the show was what would happen if Elon Musk had created TESLA Motors just to fight crime.


Learn more about KITT and Knight Rider:
Fictional Chatbots: KITT from Knight Rider


War Games: Shall We Play A Game?

WOPR from War Games

WOPR (War Operation Plan Response) was a fictional military supercomputer introduced in the 1983 film War Games starring Matthew Broderick. While the computer wasn’t technically a chatbot, it was an AI supercomputer that was given a voice through the means of an attached device. For many, this was the first time a talking computer was seen on screen being represented in the modern era.


Learn more WOPR from War Games:
Fictional Chatbots: WOPR from War Games


The Robots from South Park

I’m going to go ahead and explain this show, just in case you’ve had your head buried in the sand for the past 24 years. This hilarous and raunchy animated series was created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone and follows the adventures of four boys named Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny who live in the fictional toan of South Park, Colorado.

While it may seem an odd place to find anything related to chatbot history, I promise that if you look you’ll see it. Particularly in the characters AWESOM-0 4000 and Funnybot. There are a few others that I’ll go into as well, including Mecha-Streisand, Bill Cosby (and his nemesis, Cartman’s Trapper Keeper), Roger Goodell, and a few others.

In Conclusion

The authors and directors of Science Fiction are responsible for some amazing creations. When we include their contributions to real world technologies, their contributions are a little hard to measure. But if we look closely, we can see the influences of their work on a number of advances. Without Star Trek’s Tri-corder, would we have created the cell phone? Maybe, but it may have taken much longer to reach the market.

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2 thoughts on “The History of Fictional Chatbots”

  1. Hi Sean,

    This is so interesting! I would have never guessed that the word ‘robot’ comes from Czech and Czech literature, but that’s fascinating! (I’m very into language and very much enjoy learning the origin of words, so thank you for including that tidbit!)

    This historical overview was very interesting. I haven’t seen or read a single one of the books/plays/programs you brought up, so your descriptions were very informative. I also suddenly feel like I get several references that have been made around me growing up, that have gone right over my head.

    So, thank you!
    ~Jade

    Reply
    • Jade,

      I agree, I was a little surprised on hearing robot was a Czech word as well. Learning about the history behind all of this has been an eye opener for me as well. Much of the Fictional Chatbots I’ve written about here are from books, movies, and shows that I enjoyed as a kid so it’s been fun getting to watch and read them again as part of the work behind this site.

      Thanks for the comment,
      Sean

      Reply

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