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“I want to create technology that allows people to have conversations with characters who don’t exist in the physical world—because they’re fictional, like Buzz Lightyear,” he says, “or because they’re dead, like Martin Luther King.”My father receives his cancer diagnosis on April 24, 2016.A few days later, by happenstance, I find out that Pull String is planning to publicly release its software for creating conversational agents.The disease has metastasized widely throughout his body, including his bones, liver, and brain.It is going to kill him, probably in a matter of months. This will be the first of more than a dozen sessions, each lasting an hour or more.Sensing that I don’t quite know how to proceed, my dad hands me a piece of notepaper marked with a skeletal outline in his handwriting.
“Thank you for your thoughts, some of which are overblown,” he says. I will clip the pages into a thick black binder and put the volume on a bookshelf next to other thick black binders full of notes from other projects.
Designed to mimic a psychotherapist, the bot is surprisingly mesmerizing.
What I don’t know, sitting there glued to the screen, is that Weizenbaum himself took a dim view of his creation.
do you want to take one of these categories and dive into it? “Well, in the first place, my mother was born in the village of Kehries—K-e-h-r-i-e-s—on the Greek island of Evia …” With that, the session is under way.
We are sitting here, doing this, because my father has recently been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.
Then, a little grandly, I pronounce my father’s name: “John James Vlahos.”“Esquire,” a second voice on the recording chimes in, and this one word—delivered as a winking parody of lawyerly pomposity—immediately puts me more at ease. We are sitting across from each other in my parents’ bedroom, him in a rose-colored armchair and me in a desk chair.