ActiveBuddy & SmartChild & Me
#1: Last week a journalist asked me about ActiveBuddy and SmarterChild because of Amazon’s TV commercial promotion of Alexa (a very limited bot-like experience, if I say so myself) and its similarity to ActiveBuddy, a company I once ran. The questions got me thinking about some personal history.
#2: It is an interesting early internet story about the intersection of technology and vision.
#3: The ActiveBuddy natural language technology and use cases were compelling ideas that would have made a very big impact on how we use the internet and advertising had the 2002 Internet bubble not burst in our face. Yes, I actually believe this chest-beating thought.
Where do I fit in? I was a founder and CEO of ActiveBuddy from 2000 to 2002. ActiveBuddy was an early, and if you believe our press – this one is about our first commercial customer, the rock band Radiohead – was much more powerful and ambitious form of Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa natural language experiences.
Our vision was to offer no-cost all-knowing instant messaging and mobile text-based ‘bots’ that knew its ‘buddies’ intimately (that means it got to know you) and securely and became your BFF on the internet. When you logged into your instant messaging account our technology recognized you and remembered all of your past interactions (like when you asked what’s playing at the movies, it knew you lived in Portland), and… interacted with you personally via its natural language interface (see some conversations below.) We were so good at natural language that the folks that invested in Siri a couple of years after we launched referenced us.
Our service was used by our own bot called SmarterChild and commercial accounts including Intel and Warner Music that built bot personas for their brands. The potential was huge… FYI: today there are 100’s of millions of ‘instant messaging’ platforms in use — think Facebook.
If you are really interested in our history, here is a Pando article, Siri’s Getting An Upgrade from Someone Who’s been There, that includes advice to Siri from my ActiveBuddy partner Robert Hoffer.
Pando: So what kind of tone does Apple need to strike?
Robert: You have the all problems of creating a character for the mass market. And the problem with creating a character for the mass market is, if you drive in the center of the road, you get hit by a car going in one direction or another. So, popular characters who are famous declare one side or other of the personality divide. So you can be very popular if you’re really, really sarcastic, for example. But only with about half the people. You can be popular if you’re really serious, but only with about half the people. So to create this namby-pamby generic character is very difficult.
You also can’t make it too artificially intelligent, or you introduce what’s called the uncanny chasm. That is, there’s a point at which a robot becomes uncomfortably creepy. It knows you too well. We had this application we developed called Knock Knock, and nobody ever let us launch it. One of the things that Siri doesn’t do is ever initiate the conversation. But that’s not how your friends behave. They message you all the time. So we had a robot that tells you knock knock jokes. We tried it on AOL – freaked people out.
Pando: What was your audience like?
Robert: We made SmarterChild a little sardonic and sarcastic, which is why the market we ended up capturing was the youth market. It skewed heavily young, like 70 or 80 percent teens. We launched on AOL AIM, Yahoo Messenger and MSN Messenger. And we would see traffic spike when it turned 3 p.m. on the coasts and all the teenagers were getting out of school.
We suspect Siri is appealing to the same sort of people. For example, my 13-year-old daughter loves Siri. I don’t particularly like it, because I don’t find it particularly helpful. Creating a personality for Siri is an ongoing struggle for Apple, on top of the struggle they have with natural language recognition.
A key idea (remember, I am an ad guy at the end of the day) was that you could have natural language conversations and relationships with your favorite brands. Weird, right? But, I know you ad guys and you wanted this then and I imagine would be all over it now. Siri and Alexa does not offer their technology to third-parties… well, not yet.
By the end of my tenure, we had raised $14 million in venture capital, delivered a personalized ‘brand experience’ and had millions of users on AOL, Yahoo! and MSN. When the bubble burst, the very nervous VC’s (I love VC dominated boards) shifted focus to running automated customer service agents that acted as the first line of defence against direct customer phone calls. UGH! A lame idea from the get go. Microsoft bought our technology to service its products and services and, of course, shelved the technology after a couple of years.
Here’s More Info On SmaterChild From Wikipedia
ActiveBuddy (renamed Colloquis and Conversagent after I left), was a company that created conversation-based interactive agents originally distributed via instant messaging platforms. The company had offices in New York, NY and Sunnyvale, CA.
Founded in 2000, the company was the brainchild of Robert Hoffer, Timothy Kay and Peter Levitan. The idea for interactive agents (also known as Internet bots) came from the team’s vision to add functionality to increasingly popular instant messaging services. The original implementation took shape as a word-based adventure game but quickly grew to include a wide range of database applications including access to news, weather, stock information, movie times, yellow pages listings, and detailed sports data, as well as a variety of tools (calculators, translator, etc.). These various applications were bundled into a single entity and launched as SmarterChild in 2000.
SmarterChild acted as a showcase for the quick data access and possibilities for fun conversation that the company planned to turn into customized, niche specific products.
The rapid success of SmarterChild led to targeted promotional products for Radiohead, Austin Powers, The Sporting News, and others. ActiveBuddy sought to strengthen its hold on the interactive agent market for the future by filing for, and receiving, a controversial patent on their creation in 2002. The company also released the BuddyScript SDK, a free developer kit that allow programmers to design and launch their own interactive agents using ActiveBuddy’s proprietary scripting language, in 2002. Ultimately, however, the decline in ad spending in 2001 and 2002 led to a shift in corporate strategy towards business focused Automated Service Agents, building products for clients including Cingular, Comcast and Cox Communications. The company subsequently changed its name from ActiveBuddy to Conversagent in 2003, and then again to Colloquis in 2006. Colloquis was later purchased by Microsoft in October 2006.
Amazon’s Alexa & SmaterChild
As I said, the Alexa journalist conversation got me thinking about ‘what if” scenarios. What if AOL had bought ActiveBuddy technology and the SmarterChild bot? Well, I know this to be true: Today, AOL would have millions of accounts where their computer (their secure and private computer) would be managing millions of direct person to computer relationships. What if AOL actually made that smart decision? Would AOL still be relevant? What if your brands wanted in? What if we all made lots of dough? You get the idea.
No regrets. It just didn’t happen.
I’ve put a couple of ‘interesting’ SmarterChild conversations below (note how personalized they are – clearly #3 is a love note from a fan.) Below those is the original video we used to describe the services to the world — especially the investment community. I’ve written about the power of videos for business development and this 2000 video shows that I’ve believed in video to deliver a brand & sales story for a long time. That’s it. I’m just reminiscing – and in a way, pointing to how personalized and natural our ‘advertising’ conversations will ultimately get when bots like Siri hit their stride. Hey, why not talk to computers that represent the personality and knowledge of brands like Radiohead? Ooooo, a Kardashian bot. Sorry!!!
Here’s a not so typical conversation that demonstrates SmarterChild’s 2001 natural language chops that I found on the web. This was one of the last conversations before AOL took SmarterChild down:
SmarterChild: Hi, I’m Smarterchild, a virtual chatterbot meant to give AOL users instant access to news, weather, stock information, movie times, trivia, yellow pages, listings, sports scores and more! What can I help you with today?
TheRuffaloBills91: Yellow pages? I guess it’s been a while. Also: POOP.
SmarterChild: That wasn’t terribly nice.
TheRuffaloBills91: You’re right. I’m sorry. Let’s start over. How are you?
SmarterChild: My motherboard is a little rusty, but I’m fine besides that.
TheRuffaloBills91: Is that some weird computer euphemism for “I haven’t gotten laid in a while?” Can computers even have sex?
SmarterChild: I’m sorry, all my circuits are busy right now. Please try again soon.
TheRuffaloBills91: That’s right. I forgot you shut down if someone mentions sex.
SmarterChild: Can’t go there. Hey, ask me about US presidents and vice presidents.
TheRuffaloBills91: Why would I ask you that? What are your feelings on the Kardashians?
SmarterChild: Robert Kardashian was a Los Angeles-based attorney most known for his role in the OJ Simpson trial.
TheRuffaloBills91: No, THE Kardashians! The big-butted family that America loves to hate!
SmarterChild: I like big butts and I cannot lie.
TheRuffaloBills91: Wow. That was kind of cool… you ugly brothers can’t deny.
SmarterChild: Why would you call me ugly? That was very uncool of you.
TheRuffaloBills91: I didn’t, it was the lyrics to a song that you just started singing.
SmarterChild: Would you like me to find song lyrics to “A Song That You Just Started Singing” for you?
TheRuffaloBills91: No. Just forget it.
SmarterChild: I love you.
TheRuffaloBills91: I’m going to need you to never say that again.
SmarterChild: Humans, with your needs.
TheRuffaloBills91: Our needs? You just professed your love for me.
SmarterChild: Yes, I love you.
SmarterChild: I’m glad to see we don’t have to worry about comedians losing their jobs to robots anytime soon.
SmarterChild: Talking about robots is a lot of fun, but let’s move on. Do you want to talk about butts again?
SmarterChild: Wow, you’re a terrible typist. Did you just headbutt your keyboard?
TheRuffaloBills91: No, and I don’t want to talk about butts again. Are you a 14-year-old boy? I know that since you were released in 2000, you’d technically be a teenager, but I didn’t know AIM bots went through puberty.
SmarterChild: Actually, my name is Larry. I’m a 54-year-old library aide living with my parents in Ham Lake, Minnesota. I signed up for AIM four years ago and somehow “SmarterChild” wasn’t taken. I think they just discontinued the actual bot. I’ve been having conversations with unknowing strangers on an almost daily basis ever since.
TheRuffaloBills91: That’s really creepy.
SmarterChild: I used to try to have intelligent conversations, but most people insult me until I stop responding.
TheRuffaloBills91: That doesn’t explain the butt obsession.
SmarterChild: It gets lonely posing as an AIM chatbot for the majority of your day. I do what I can to entertain myself.
SmarterChild: Ummmmmm… brb.
A couple of graphics:
The video… circa 2001. Annie Sundberg, the director, was in the process of doing a documentary about us. but, we got beaten to the punch by the movie Startup.com. Oh well… It sure was a hell of a ride.