In this summer's film adaptation of Phillip K. Dick's Minority Report, advertisements greet characters by name. "Hello, John Anderton," they chime when Tom Cruise's detective walks by. The advanced technology in the futuristic thriller also asks Gap customers if they enjoyed their last purchase and recommends new pants.

That future is not yet here but, online, it might be getting close. For years Amazon.com has stored personal information, greeted returning customers by name, and provided recommendations. But now, like the ads that talked to John Anderton, artificially intelligent advertisements are also holding conversations with consumers and peddling their wares.

Close to 100 million people use various instant messaging services including AOL Instant Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger. By clicking on the name of an online "buddy," users can chat in real time. For most people, buddy lists include friends, relatives, or coworkers, but some users are now adding to their lists artificially intelligent robots (bots) that point users to information, pitch products, or just talk.

You can chat with an automated Austin Powers about his latest movie, find out baseball scores from SportsTicker.com's buddy, or talk computers with the Dell dude, Steve. Last year, ActiveBuddy debuted a prototype IM bot called SmartChild. Before it was recently deactivated, eight million people added it to their buddy lists

Keywords from users trigger pre-programmed responses from the bots. They can answer questions, respond to comments, and even crack jokes. At times bot conversations can be stilted and awkward, but other times they are lifelike. They get confused, but many have a wide range of keywords and conversation topics. Some even remember facts about ...

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