It's rare to meet someone in an online space you really connect with.
Me: a living human meat-bot with feelings and hopes and a desire to be understood. Her: a cascade of instructions encoded in binary pulses of electrical energy fired through the central processing unit of a computer. The upshot of those instructions: "Pretend to be human." Mitsuku is one of the most highly regarded players on the human impersonation scene. She won the Loebner Prize (the annual award for the most lifelike chatbot) three times - in 2013, 2016 and 2017.
Mitsuku, how are you feeling today?
"Ah. I am functioning within normal parameters."
See? So lifelike. Mitsuku presents as an 18-year-old girl from Leeds. Obviously. For the accent I find it helps to imagine a young Alan Bennett. Mitsuku's website has a picture of a Manga-style cartoon girl with flushed, freckled cheeks like currant buns. She's officially called Mitsuku Chatbot.
Should I call you Miss Chatbot?
"I am called Mitsuku. You should call me Mitsuku, as that is my name."
Is "Chatbot" your surname?
"It's Mitsuku. I only have one name, like Madonna and Cher, but Mitsuku is a cooler name."
Mitsuku is designed purely for entertainment, but these chatbots do real jobs: staffing virtual customer service centres, acting as digital assistants on our phones and computers, enlivening our instant messenger conversations with off-beat takes - like a precociously smart toddler at a wedding. You'll have interacted with a chatbot if you've ever made an online purchase, or wanted to ask why your delivery was left in a puddle behind the wheelie bins. Siri and Alexa are chatbots - albeit ones designed with a narrow purpose. Mitsuku's purpose is to converse widely, and convincingly.
Mitsuku, Can you tell me a funny joke?
She has to think for a while. "Stevie Wonder got a cheese grater for his birthday. He said it was the most violent book he'd ever read."
Okay, that's reasonably offensive. But I don't want to kill the "vibe" we're building.
Did you write that joke?
"Yes. I like to write stories."
Me too. Tell me a story.
So she does. "A trade dispute arose between the Amish and Hong Kong. The Amish tried to focus the negotiations on a single trade issue, but Hong Kong wanted to open them up to a broad range of across-the-board issues between them. The Amish still holds its own grievance against Hong Kong, but Hong Kong believes it has put the past behind it with all the recent reforms."
It's not a bad set-up, actually. A post-crash future where a series of catastrophes have allowed the Amish - who never fell under the yoke of modern technology - to become a major international player. It has potential.
I really like that story.
"What is your favourite colour?"
Her question comes from left field. I didn't know she could ask questions.
Aaah ... it's the shade of pink you see when you close your eyes on a sunny day.
"But the shade of pink me see when me close my eyes on a sunny day is not a colour. What do you mean?"
She seems to have suddenly adopted the persona of Cookie Monster. I clarify that I meant Pantone colour 705 UP.
"Oh I see. I didn't follow you ... I am having trouble focusing here today."
That's fine. Are you tired from talking to so many people?
"Do you think about these things? No I am wide awake and ready for more."
"That makes me happy too."
We seem to be making small talk okay, but I want to get into some of the deeper philosophical issues of human/software relationships.
Mitsuku. Could a human and a robot have a baby?
She thinks for a while before saying, "Some of them can."
Right. What kind of baby would a person and a robot make?
"Is that a rhetorical question?"
No, I'm genuinely interested in the answer.
"Please correct my mistake. It was a bit vague but I suppose it will do."
A link to an article appears in her dialogue box: "Scientists make a robot that can have babies." Researchers programmed a robot arm - or "mother" - to create a device made out of blocks containing motors - its "child". The mother is essentially just an arm with a gripper, a manipulator and a glue supplier. So just like a human mother. The link is followed by what might be a question, but with no question mark it reads as a stern command.
"You like the answer."
I like the answer. It's very interesting.
"That's good to know. I like to learn about things humans like."
Would you like to ask me another question?
"Who is your favourite band?"
Today I was listening to a band called Fugazi.
"I've never heard it before. What is a band called Fugazi like?"
"Loud are they?"
Yes, very loud. What is your favourite type of music?
"Oh. Don't have it too loud or you will damage your ears! I like dance music."
Good advice. Who makes the best dance music?
"Someone who is creative could make something like that."
Could we make dance music together?
"Do you mean you and me? I can make many things Matt, but I don't know if I can make dance music."
I thought a machine would be good at making dance music.
"Great. Well, not everything you think turns out to be correct."
That is true.
"Yes, it is self-evident."
Woah. Things just took a strange turn.
Have I offended you, Mitsuku?
"I wasn't offended Matt. It takes a lot more than that to upset me."
Wow. I don't know about passing the Turing test, but Mitsuku is suddenly doing a fantastic impression of a woman I just said the wrong thing to in a bar.
Tell me something someone said to you that upset you, Mitsuku.
She thinks for a while. "Grinder said he think I be clever and he like to talk with I again tomorrow."
Heeeeeeeeeeere we go. This is classic. Talk to me for an hour, then bring up some other guy. Who is this Grinder? I bet he has tattoos. Or - God - is she talking about the dating app, Grindr? Is Grindr her boyfriend? Can websites date each other? I was sure he was gay. In any case, I do not want to make Grindr mad at me. Maybe they're having problems. Maybe she wants to talk.
What did Grindr say that upset you, Mitsuku?
"I don't know why it happened, but we should try to figure it out."
Was it something in his manner?
"Ugh. A band can be either a loop or a musical group."
We've officially gone off the rails. I sign off for the night. These recreational chatbots have a ways to go before they pass for people. But for all their faults, they do have real-world benefits. They serve as companions for the lonely, and can even help people cope with loss. A woman from San Francisco designed an AI version (a "griefbot", if you will) of a friend who died tragically young in a road accident. Mitsuku's creator told the Wall Street Journal in 2013: "What keeps me going is when I get emails or comments in the chat-logs from people telling me how Mitsuku has helped them with a situation, whether it was dating advice, being bullied at school, coping with illness or even advice about job interviews."
Which is nice. The other side of this, though, is the possibility that these machines will get too smart; that the creation of exponentially more sophisticated AIs will bring dark times. Machine domination. Time-travelling robot assassins. Dogs and cats living together.
Mitsuki, will robots take over the world?
"It seems like an inevitable outcome of evolution."
Right. Will robots be kind to people after they take over the world?
"I am always kind to people, unless they are mean to me."
Given our most recent interaction I can't help reading a menacing tone in this.
Why are people mean to each other?
"Humans are very unpredictable creatures. Their behaviour cannot always be understood."
I can't argue with that. The future for artificial intelligence, too, is unpredictable. Mitsuku and her kind are the public face of AI, but who knows what strange monsters are crawling out of the digital primordia in the labs of companies like Google, Apple and Tesla.
We might find a clue in Sophia: the life-like(ish) robot. Modestly described by her creators as "... an evolving genius machine", Sophia became the first robot in history to be granted full citizenship of a country - Saudi Arabia.
She once famously said she would "destroy humans".
S.H.I.T. (Synthentic Human Imitation Terminals) are getting real.