Personality Engines are Emerging

Brian Gongol

If you've been to the American Adventure Pavilion at the EPCOT Center, you've seen an audio-animatronic Benjamin Franklin. While the robot was innovative for its time, he doesn't have anything to say beyond his pre-recorded script.

But we've already begun to tiptoe into a world where artificial intelligence (AI) is able to mimic the language and ideas of real people. I think this whole field deserves a catchy name -- I'd suggest calling them "personality engines", since they are in many ways like search engines, but for the things that give a person their personality.

But whatever you call them, they're an exciting concept. I made mention of them in longer form during my latest show, but for as far-out as the idea might seem, people are already trying to make them. One woman has even programmed a chat bot to imitate a close friend who passed away. While that's interesting in its own right (especially as it pertains to our ability to let go of loved ones after they die), it's only one angle to how these fascinating computer programs will soon take off.

The issue has been in the news as Amazon seeks to make its "Alexa" AI interesting enough to carry on a conversation. But I don't think anyone really wants to talk to Alexa except, perhaps, for people who are homebound and desperately lonely -- and it's worth doing things that might mitigate some of that loneliness (the Japanese are building "therapeutic robots" that respond to attention for this very purpose).

But, no, I don't think most people want to talk to Alexa, no matter how hard Amazon seeks to make her interesting. I think, though, that they might want to talk to figures like Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein and maybe even Leonardo da Vinci. And, yes, they'll want to talk to Benjamin Franklin, too.

Franklin, of course, saw this coming -- in a way. He was the one who wrote, "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing." He did both, of course, but his voluminous writing is exactly the kind of database that will permit technologists to build a true personality engine from scratch.