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 who they talk to. Many users have personal conversations with the bots even though they know it is only computer software. Users told SmartChild "I love you" nine million times.
Saving souls with robots?
As Internet technology and popularity have increased, the applications for Internet evangelism have as well. Scores of websites provide information on Jesus, run complex presentations of the Gospel, or show video testimonies. Ministries also use chatrooms and IM to offer prayer and talk about Christianity. Could new automatic technologies and artificially intelligent IM buddies like SmartChild be used in evangelism?
It's possible. An anti-smoking bot named Virgil chats with kids about movies, music, and sports while giving lessons on why smoking is "stupid." But some say that is not the same as programming software to talk about Jesus.
Moishe Rosen, founder of Jews for Jesus, says that a key to Internet evangelism is personal connection. "I just don't think I could use these automated things," Rosen told CT. "It pretends an intimacy that is not there. Plus, when it comes to automated anything, you have to wonder where the Holy Spirit is."
Rosen, who often speaks on Internet evangelism, uses chatrooms to meet people online, offer prayer, or share his beliefs. In chatrooms he has often seen automated IM bots used to lure surfers onto porn sites. A message will pop up pretending to know the user and provide a website address. This kind of "imposing presence" cannot be used for evangelism, he says.
"There is a difference between being objective and being manipulative," he says. "Objective is having a website that is well-announced where people can go for information. Being manipulative is where you have an instant message sent as though it is from a real person."
Advertising bots like those used by FAO Schwarz and eBay do not yet impose on IM users. They cannot pop up and initiate conversation. Instead, surfers have to add the buddies to their buddy list and send the first message.
David Campbell, founder of Fish the Net and Ark Webs Ministries, lists the IM buddy names for himself and ministry volunteers at the end of online tracts. He said that an automated buddy could be used as one of those to provide information, as long as users know it is not a person.
"Every tool we can get is appropriate," Campbell says. "This could provide a more direct answer to what is on your mind than any online presentation. I like live interaction, but if at the end of bot's program it says, 'You can call this number or go to this chatroom,' then it could work."
For purely informational purposes, some evangelistic sites already use automated software. Many chatrooms use bots that act as moderators. In eMinistry: Connecting with the Net Generation, Andrew Careaga tells about one chatroom that uses JesusFrk, a computer programmed "Bible bot" to deliver Scripture on command.
"For members of the Net Generation, the Bible bot is as integral a part of the faith experience as hymnals and pews were to an earlier generation of believers," Careaga writes. "With the advent of the Internet and all of its trappings, the church is being pressed to rethink, and perhaps expand, its definition of itself."
Todd Hertz is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.
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