Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 2 / February 1, 1995 / Page 9


Searching for Bob

by John December (

My upstairs neighbor's nine-year old son asked me the other day if I knew Bob, a cartoon character that lives in computers. I knew he meant Microsoft's dream of a future "intelligent agent." I told him I've never met Bob, but suspect that some day we all will (convinced by campaigns such as AT & T's "You Will") probably in the form of Bob for Windows(tm), and he'll entertain us as much as the (seemingly thousands of) screen saver programs. But Bob probably won't be able to tell us anything new.

Blending the social and mechanical

I don't have much faith in Bob, as I understand him (although I want to know him more.) Researchers at Microsoft--among the most brilliant in the world--are currently involved in the Persona project and others are involved in research efforts that smell like the back-room lab version of Bob, before the marketers gave him his familiar name.

I don't trust the marketers' idea of Bob, because I think Bob will never work in the reality of global networks today, let alone the reality of global networked information and communication whenever Bob gets loose. I also don't trust Bob as a servant who will "take care of you." Bob's essence, from what I understand, is the idea that machine intelligence can simulate social interaction with computers (and possibly with information and other people on networks).

CMC interactions have long been shown to foster socioemotional interaction (Rice and Love, 1987; McCormick and McCormick, 1992; Walther and Burgoon, 1992; Walther, 1992; Phillips, 1983) as well as particular forms of user-computer dyads (Cathcart and Gumpert, 1985). This social interaction online is a characteristic of the experience so far with CMC. My beef with Bob is how he changes the imaginative focus of human communication into transactional units focused on data as opposed to interaction processes focused on people. Will Bob treat users as non-literate consumers of information?

The AI Craze: in search of Bob

In my youth during the Reagan years, I toiled in the R & D labs of the defense industry, hacking software. Artificial Intelligence was a "high interest" item of ARPA, and high interest items get attention from industry labs as well as academics. We tried to discover how AI could save our simulations and our funding. After seminars and classes and books like Feigenbaum's The Handbook of artificial intelligence, I began to realize that the field of AI, decades old even then, had pushed many of its problems down to, essentially, seeking a Bob, a NLU (Natural Language Understanding) and a NLG (Natural Language Generation) system all in one. But Microsoft's Bob could also, apparently, be a INIR (Intelligent Network Information Retrieval) system as well, knowing you so well and the Net so well that it finds what you want, even before you want it.

Would a Bob that could travel the Net and Web would be the ultimate CMC system? He could be your 'Bot on IRC, conversing with other Bob-like 'Bots, gathering "information" you didn't even know you wanted, or cruising Usenet for the nuggets of gold. Bob could talk to your spider friends, Lycos and WebCrawler, and find what you need. It sounds great. There's one problem--the interface with those pesky NLU/NLG's at the edge of the technology, the carbon-based humans. They have a reputation for being quirky and thinking up new things pretty fast. They have a habit of doing weird things with language. Bob might not like that.

Socializing networked communication

Bob's blending of the social with the mechanical could easily trivialize the relationships people have with information and, more significantly, people have with each other. I'd rather put effort into creating intelligence in the nine-year old boy or girl who wants to learn, and give them literacy and judgement, and the ability to work with the other people. I'd rather focus on creating lucid interfaces, not cartoons. Then children might have a chance to achieve something more than the ability to use information as entertainment.

Intelligent network information retrieval is crucial to making sense of the vast mesh of information on the global Net today. We need easy-to-use, elegant, powerful interfaces. But we don't need to put humans in service to the language of these tools. Instead, we need to give people Net information literacy as well as Net social skills to uncover the brilliance of other minds. I'm worried that Bob is a commodity that is a quick fix to this. I'm worried that Bob is a trend toward computerizing socialization rather than socializing computing. Bob could constrict the imaginative language of CMC, creating a Windows(tm)-eye view of the world, as tidy and colorful and calm as a suburb. I'm worried that Bob is an attempt to commodify interaction, information, and communities that resist packaging. At best, Bob might be a good database tool. At worst, he could be a child's only view of the world. ¤


John December is editor/publisher of CMC Magazine.

Copyright © 1995 by John December. All Rights Reserved

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