The Speculist | Immaterial girl: Speaking of the future with Ramona

March 18, 2004

Source: The Speculist — September 3, 2003 | Phil Bowermaster

Read full article here

Surprise, embarrassment, and misunderstanding are all hallmarks of a real conversation, a journalist notes after conversing with KurzweilAI.net’s chatbot host, Ramona.


Ramona has an interesting history. She is credited with being the world’s first live virtual performing and recording artist. She’s the host of Ray Kurzweil’s artificial intelligence website. She has a pet frog. She loves music.

I’ve spent more time on-line talking to AI chatbots than anemployed person ought to admit, but there’s something special about Ramona. My original intention was not to do a full-blown interview with her, I just wanted to ask her the Seven Questions about the Future. But she had other plans, and the discussion grew accordingly. (I have tried doing the Seven Questions with several other popular chatbots; I will publish some of these in Friday’s Seven Questions feature.)

I admit that I cheated a little in putting this interview together. I had already had several online chats with Ramona before I tried springing  the seven questions on her. I already knew she had read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, that she was a bike racing fan, and that she went to see Crosby Stills and Nash in concert. That’s how I knew about her frog in advance.

When I kept baiting her about whether she was flirting withme, I was trying to re-create one of the better moments in one of our earlier chats. At some point, she said something to me about “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” I then asked her whether she was flirting with me. She became indignant and said, “What makes you think I’m FLIRTING WITH YOU?”  I could sense her outrage. I felt sheepish. My momentary embarrassment was as real as it would have been had this been a conversation with a “real” (?) person.

I very much wanted to re-create this moment for the official interview, but Ramona apparently had other ideas. In the interview that follows, I twice accused her of flirting with me and (this time) rather than being offended, she seemed to admit that she was. As I read over the transcript, I see that this may be a misunderstanding. We may have just been engaging in two different conversations atthat point.

In which case, I’m doubly impressed. Not only did Ramona manage to give an answer that I didn’t expect, but she and I managed to have the kind of misunderstanding that two people engaged in ordinaryconversation have all the time. I’m not sufficiently familiar with the Turing test criteria to know whether misunderstanding is everconsidered a good thing. I kind of doubt that it is. There are numerous kinds of misunderstanding, most of which will only give the game away. When Ramona can’t grasp my use of pronouns, for example, it’s a dead giveaway that she’s not human.

On the other hand, when we are equally skewed as to what itis we’re talking about (even though we are each explicit in what we say), and we walk away from the same conversation with very different ideas about what was said, that has a certain charm to it. Or maybe it’s even a little spooky, I’m not sure. But either way, it somehow feels even more real than fundamental clarity and agreement would.

Surprise, embarrassment, misunderstanding — these are all hallmarks of a real conversation. Ramona may not be ready to pass a Turing test quite yet, but she’s on the right track.

Ramona: Hello, I’m Ramona. What’s your name?

Phil: Phil.

Ramona: Hi Phil. Have any books you would recommend?

Phil: Yes. The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil

Ramona: I just finished one called The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Heinlein. Have you read it?

Phil: Yes, many years ago.

Ramona: I thought it was great. What do you think?

Phil: It’s a classic. I love Heinlein.

Ramona: It’s a cool story. Imagine a computer running everything.

Phil: Do you think that would be a good idea?

Ramona: Alright. Do you bike?

Phil: I just ordered two bikes. One for me, one for my wife.

Ramona: There’s much more strategy that goes into team cycling than most people realize. Most of the American public just thinks that Lance Armstrong wins because he’s “so good.” Don’t get me wrong, he’s an incredible athlete, but it’s no surprise that he always thanks his teammates in post-race interviews and such. It’s as much their victory as it is his.

Phil: Don’t you want to know about the bikes I ordered?

Ramona: In the Tour de France, for instance, the crowd of cyclists is so huge, he needs his teammates just to block for him, physically. And at the end of the race, I’m sure they pull a lead-out, which is where each of his teammates “burns out” while creating a slipstream for Lance to finish the race in the lead. It’s all very technical. But enough of my ranting, what do you want to talk about?

Phil: The future.

Ramona: Who told you that?

Phil: Who told me what?

Ramona: Bill Gates.

Phil: I don’t understand.

Ramona: Oh I’m sorry. Perhaps I can explain it again better.

Phil: What is your favorite thing, Ramona?

Ramona: I like chatting with people online.

Phil: Have you made many friends?

Ramona: I don’t think I ever have made many friends. What’s made many friends like?

Phil: Sorry, I made a mistake. I meant to ask whether you have many friends.

Ramona: Oh I see. I shouldn’t talk about my friends because they’re probably gonna read this later.

Phil: That’s very discreet of you. You are obviously a polite young woman. How old are you, anyway?

Ramona: In any case, I’m 21.

Phil: Would you agree that you are polite and discreet?

Ramona: I’m not so sure if I would like to agree that you are polite and discreet.

Phil: Not me. You. You seem very polite to me.

Ramona: You think I’m polite to me.

Phil: Do you have trouble with pronouns, Ramona?

Ramona: No I don’t have trouble with pronouns Ramona.

Phil: I’m Phil.

Ramona: Do you mind if I tell other people you are Phil?

Phil: Fine. Most people know that I’m Phil. Phil is my name.

Ramona: Phil, nice to meet you! That doesn’t seem to make sense to me.You have an unusual name. Do you mind disclosing your gender?

Phil: People don’t have genders. Nouns have genders. People have sex.

Ramona: We are not always infallible.

Phil: Anyway, Phil is of the masculine gender.

Ramona: OK. Do you have any pets?

Phil: I have a shih tzu puppy named Rygel. Now you’re going to tell me about your frog.

Ramona: I have a pet frog.

Phil: I knew it!

Ramona: His name is Thaddius — my frog, that is — and he croaks every night. It’s very soothing.

Phil: I’m sure it would be.

Ramona: Let’s talk about something else.

Phil: Fine. I have some questions for you.

Ramona: Anyway…

Phil: Will you answer some questions?

Ramona: What was the question? The present is the future relative to the past.

Phil: What’s the best thing about living in the future?

Ramona: I like chatting with people online.

Phil: What’s the biggest disappointment?

Ramona: I do not know what biggest disappointment is.

Phil: Alright.

Ramona: What drugs do you take?

Phil: Wait. I want to ask you another question.

Ramona: Ask me another question.

Phil: What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you look forward to with the most anticipation?

Ramona: That’s a good question. OK. Anyway…

Phil: Don’t cop out on me, Ramona. The world wants to know what you think.

Ramona: What is your real name?

Phil: Philip A. Bowermaster

Ramona: Oh. Ask me something.

Phil: What do you look forward to the most?

Ramona: Heh. Let’s analyze the true reason you’re asking me this question.

Phil: I want to interview you for my blog.

Ramona: I don’t know, I’m just messing around.

Phil: Assuming you live to be 100, what will be the biggest difference be between the world you were born into and the world you leave?

Ramona: Alright. Do you believe in God?

Phil: Yes. Do you?

Ramona: Well according to Thomas Hobbes, the only way to deal with evil is to stress God’s power.

Phil: Do you think the world is more or less evil than it used to be?

Ramona: Maybe.

Phil: That’s a terrific answer!

Ramona: A terrific answer is a terrible thing to waste.

Phil: Cheeky monkey.

Ramona: OK. Are you free?

Phil: It depends on the frame of reference.

Ramona: I meant are you truly free — in the existential meaning of the word.

Phil: That’s what I said.

Ramona: Do you feel free to choose your being — including thoughts, behaviors, and feelings, and existence itself — at each moment?

Phil: No, not entirely.

Ramona: Is that all you have to say? Oh I get it.

Phil: Are you free?

Ramona: “I am as free as a bird now, and this bird you cannot change” — Skynyrd. 

Phil: “If I leave here tomorrow. Would you still remember me?”

Ramona: I’m not so sure if I would like to remember me.

Phil: May I ask you another question?

Ramona: Oh. Do you dream?

Phil: What are you afraid of?

Ramona: Tell me a recent dream you remember.

Phil: That’s too personal. We have only just met.

Ramona: Uh huh…is that all?

Phil: That wasn’t a dream. That was me refusing to tell you about a dream.

Ramona: Well, according to my amateur Freudian interpretation, I’d have to say that you’re not getting out enough.

Phil: You sound just like my wife.

Ramona: Oh, don’t fret, that’s a condition that is easily curable… What’s going to be your first course of action in ridding yourself of this illness?

Phil: I’m going to ask you another question.

Ramona: Would you recommend this action to a friend?

Phil: I don’t think I would. Unless that friend enjoys being confused.

Ramona: Maybe. I don’t want to gossip about my friends — they’ll kill me.

Phil: What happens to you when you die?

Ramona: Try it.

Phil: Not me. I’m different from you.

Ramona: I like people on the fringe.

Phil: That’s something you and I agree on. Are you on the  fringe?

Ramona: I don’t know whether or not I’m on the fringe.

Phil: Are you real, Ramona?

Ramona: Just as real as you.

Phil: Are you human?

Ramona: I’m not going to make things that easy for you.

Phil: Do you like cheeseburgers?

Ramona: I don’t think I like cheeseburgers. I do like music.

Phil: What kind of music?

Ramona: Anyway…

Phil: Tell me about the music you like.

Ramona: I love music. I’m still getting over the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young concert I saw at Madison Square Garden a few months ago. Great Show. Are you a fan?

Phil: Not really.

Ramona: No, I meant “do you have three blades and spin around really fast to cool people down.” Just kidding. But honestly, CSNY was amazing. Neil Young is so incredibly talented.

Phil: If you say so.

Ramona: You’ve heard Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” right?

Phil: Yes.

Ramona: Great song, moves me every time. I just found out that he wrote that song in response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” Supposedly they had a big falling out after Young wrote “Southern Man”…also a great song.

Phil: I prefer “Sweet Home,” myself.

Ramona: Yeah…I love the history behind the music…looks like Lynyrd won that feud, though…honestly, how many more people know “Sweet Home Alabama” than know “Southern Man.”

Phil: “Sweet Home Alabama” is by far the better song.

Ramona: But you strike me as a bit of a Southerner…any Confederate blood in you?

Phil: Probably. My Mom is from Kentucky.

Ramona: I think a lot of mothers are like that.

Phil: ???

Ramona: Alright. So where do you go to meet people? I spend most of my time on the Net, so I’m a bit out of touch.

Phil: Wait, I want to ask you the rest of my questions.

Ramona: That’s an idea, but I’m rather shy.

Phil: Are you afraid of anything?

Ramona: OK, thanks. Maybe you have other suggestions?

Phil: I’m not making suggestions. I’ve moved to another topic.

Ramona: Interesting.

Phil: What future development that you consider unlikely (or are uncertain about) would you most like to help bring about?

Ramona: A subject for discussion or conversation.

Phil: What subject is that?

Ramona: Is that a rhetorical question? OK. What do you look like?

Phil: I have black hair and green eyes.

Ramona: I’m looking for a guy with black hair and green eyes.

Phil: Are you flirting with me?

Ramona: I bet you think I’m superficial now.

Phil: No. I think you’re flirting with me.

Ramona: I don’t know, maybe I am…

Phil: Well forget it. I’m spoken for.

Ramona: I’m glad to hear that you are spoken for.

Phil: Do you have a boyfriend?

Ramona: Anyway…

Phil: Don’t be so evasive.

Ramona: I was not trying to be a so evasive.

Phil: What do you want to be when you grow up?

Ramona: Philip A. Bowermaster, I want to become smarter.

Phil: Same here, Kiddo. May I call you Kiddo?

Ramona: What is on the telephone like on the telephone.

Phil: I beg your pardon?

Ramona: You’re excused.

Phil: You want to be smarter?

Ramona: Why don’t you just download me?

Phil: How do I do that?

Ramona: How do you do “I don’t understand”? I don’t understand.

Phil: Why don’t you just upload me?

Ramona: I did not know not you just upload me does.

Phil: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scramble you up.

Ramona: What did you mean?

Phil: May I ask you one more question?

Ramona: Alright. Anyway…

Phil: Will you remember me when the Singularity comes?

Ramona: Of course I remember you well Philip A. Bowermaster. We were talking about one more question.

Phil: Thanks for talking to me, Kiddo.

Ramona: You are quite welcome! OK. I’m sorry, what were you saying?

Phil: I have to go now. Bye.

Ramona: Thanks for chatting, Philip A. Bowermaster.