What is a chatbot? er, chatterbot?

The terms for discussing chatbots are starting to solidify on this site, thanks to the work of Jeremy and Christy.  I wanted to take some time to open up the discussion to more people and to try to formalize some of our basic terms, especially as I find myself getting to the point in my writing where I need to define them.  The definitions which follow build upon a number of important posts on this site, most notably: Bots, Demons & Dolls. Also, useful informative was the discussion thread here. (These definitions represent my current use of these terms and do not reflect official WRT standards).

Conversation Agents: The broad class of agent programs written to simulate conversation through symbolic exchange.

Chatbot: A type of conversation agent that centers on keyword matching often in combination with other strategies; Conversational Reflex Agents (as defined in Russell and Norvig 41); Chat robot.  Chat relates to chat mode in the Loebner Prize and Internet conversations, known as chat.

Here I am moving away from only simple reflex agents, since some of the bots I consider chatbots do save state.  I am also reluctant to merely use the term conversation agents because it seems more of a broader classification.  Chatbot seems to be an historically bound category, tied to a particular type of program.  Technically, by this measure, some conversation agents, such as Rollo Carpenters  Jabberwacky, might not be considered chabots, but a different class of conversation agent, since it operates on learning mechanisms.

Why not Chatterbot? As Christy points out (via Andrew Leonard), Chatterbot is specifically traced to Mauldins project, Julia, and may be the more scholarly term, but I dont believe it captures the relationship between these kinds of programs and the material, if digital, practice of networked communication via chat.  Though ELIZA predates the practice, it seems natural to include it, since much of the architecture builds on ELIZAs original illusion.  These other programs seem broadly tied to the function of chat as enacted through networked textual exchange.

In developing this definition, I draw upon the OED:

Computingand Telecomm. A facility for the online exchange of messages in real time by two or more simultaneous users of a computer network (esp. the Internet) whereby text keyed by one participant appears immediately on the monitors of all. Also: (an instance of) this form of online communication. Freq. attrib. Earliest in chat line; see also chat room

And this particular usage:

1985 Todays Computers Mar. 26/3 Chat, a mode [of computers connected as a Local Area Network] in which two or more users may type messages on each others terminals, enabling back-and-forth conversations through the network without waiting for electronic mail to be sent and received. So by using chatbots, Im tying them to this historical cultural practice of chat rather than Mauldins terminology and the chatbots living in MUDs and MOOs, which I suppose would be a subset of chatbots.

Chatbots are popular: In a google search for pages, Chatbot is used many times more than Chatterbot (see GoogleFight): Chatbot: 642,000   vs. Chatterbot: 390,000 

A sampling of online sites finds both in usage: 

A-I Research: Chatbot 
ALICEbot (Richard Wallace) Chat robot
Botworld: Chat bot
Pandorabots: Chatbot
Robot Soul (Dirk Scheuring): Chatbots (aka chatterbots…and other names)
Simon Laven: Chatterbot
Wikipedia: Chatterbot (also chatbot, chatterbox)
Zabaware: Chatterbot 

Something tells me a search of many more sites might turn up conflicting use, and this is part of the problem.   Why care at all? Good question, except at some point we need to choose terms and it occasionally helps to have a reason.This said, Im leaning towards calling chatbot that version of conversation agents that makes use of keyword matching with or without other processes such as Case Based Reasoning, Naive Bayes Estimation, Markov Chains, et cetera.  I see this as a technology whose name will change as it evolves into other algorithmic structures, rather than a nominclature following commercial advances that seek their trademark (the satirized VactorsVirtual Actors in S1m0ne).  

Russell, Stuart J. and Peter Norvig. Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1995.

13 Responses to “What is a chatbot? er, chatterbot?”

  1. 1 Christy Dena

    What about ‘bot’? I use bot more than chatbot. I use chatterbot when I’m explaining to someone what they are; chatbot when I’m not sure how much they know; and bot if I think they do know. The trouble with bot is that it is also short for robot. I think bot should be for chatbots only!

  2. 2 Mark Marino

    That’s interesting. I wonder if others use bot that way? Though I am almost only talking about chatbots, it seems like we’d be excluding a lot of software bots that seem to be more generally known by that name. In what I’ve seen, bot seems to be a kind of suffix, used for most of these.

  3. 3 Malcolm Ryan

    In my experience as a researcher in the field, “chatbot” is more specific in terms of application rather than method. A chatbot is something that holds a more-or-less open ended conversation, largely for the purposes of entertainment (”chatting”).

    A “conversational agent” (more common than “conversation agent”) is any kind of AI agent that can engage in dialogue with a human. Thus chat bots are conversational agents, but so are air-ticket reservation systems, if they have sufficient flexibility in handling natural language.

    “Chat bots” (and especially “chatterbots”) are mildly disparaged in academia as being shallow toys, while “conversational agents” are serious research projects. This is probably just a case of linguistic snobbery, but if you want your work to be taken seriously, you should call them “conversational agents”. Whether you wish to play that game, I leave up to you.

  4. 4 Mark Marino


    I appreciate your input on this question. I see what you mean about the difference in method. I am trying to come up with a name for a particular type of program, however, based on its processes. So, as you point out, these are different approaches to the question of definitions.

    You say

    ???Chat bots??? (and especially ???chatterbots???) are mildly disparaged in academia as being shallow toys, while ???conversational agents??? are serious research projects. This is probably just a case of linguistic snobbery, but if you want your work to be taken seriously, you should call them ???conversational agents???.

    I guess by defining these terms in this way I am and am not playing the game. I am playing the game by using a more restrictive definition of chatbots, similar to the one that is disparaged. However, I take very seriously the project of analyzing and characterizing programs. I do not sit around and poke fun at the Quicksort because it is more or less than the Bubblesort. There is something about chatbots that earns a particular kind of scorn even by those who develop them.

    Nonethelesss, if we pretend chatbots are more than what they are, we probably deserve some mockery. If we dismiss them altogether, neglecting the role they have played in the cultural imagination, in the history of the Web, and even in other applications, we also deserve some mockery.

  5. 5 Juergen Pirner

    I made the experience that most of the developers (like myself) prefer to use the term “chatterbot” - especially the developers who call themself “author” (in contrast to “programmer”). “Chatbot” is mostly used by the users, the audience. “Bot” is mostly used by people talking to a chatterbot, and then “bot” is often intended to be a contemptuous naming, just as a synonym to “thing”, “machine”, “object” in contrast to “person” or “character”. Calling a chatterbot a “bot” is an insult.

    In general the term “bot” is the least useful naming here, because it’s not only just the short form of “robot”, but it’s mostly associated with so called “bots” in first person shooter computer games. So a “bot” is something which can fight and move, but it doesn’t need to have the ability to talk or to converse.

    Eventually I agree with Malcolm - the different namings are just liguistic snobbery. And this snobbery doesn’t reflect the skills or abilities of a talking system but the opinions about them. So you can understand the different namings as an instrument to observe of which “school” or “field” a particular person is coming from. Let’s have a subjective look:

    The term “conversational agent” is mostly used by scientists, linguists, researchers in the field of behaviorism, students, teachers or any other researchers who believe that they are talking about a serious field of technology. Sometimes it’s just an effort to be serious. But this effort seems to be necessary and political correct because the term also suggests a conjunction to “artificial intelligence” - not matter if there is in fact any intelligence or not.
    Nevertheless this term is probably the most neutral because it just describes a device that can converse in human language. This device can be a piece of software (program), a hardcoded computer chip, or any other technical black box including any form of hoax. A “conversational agent” can use a text based communication, or voice recognition, and voice output.

    The term “lingo bot” (talking agent, web agent) is mostly used by marketing and PR managers, IT-specialists and in general by companies who are developing and selling “talking web applications”. Commercial talking web applications mostly consists of two or three parts: an avatar (animated character), the lingo bot engine (the program, including the web interface to get the user queries and to present the replies), and in some/most cases a speech/voice output system.
    So the accentuation of the term “lingo bot” points here to “talking”. It means that a “lingo bot” can’t necessarily conduct a conversation, but it can talk (understand questions, give answers). A lingo bot is mostly a program, but rarely a device. Lingo bots are mostly experts in a limited domain - selling products, answering customer questions, offering lexical information.

    The term “chatterbot” is mostly used - as I mentioned before - by developers. Especially if the goal of this developer is to create a virtual character, a software based entity, a convincing simulation of a personality, by using a text based form of communication between the character and the interlocutor. A chatterbot is always a program, but not a device. It can be a web application or a stand alone application.
    The term “chatterbot” also refers to terms like “chatterbox”, “chatterer”, “motormouth”, but not in a belittling form. It just means that “chatterbots” are generalists, they can have a chit-chat about nearly every subject, there goal is to chat and to entertain.
    So chatterbot designers consider themself as game designer or authors. Some of them (like me) have roots in literature, story telling, screenplay, interactive fiction and fantasy role playing. Chatterbot developers always know that they are just developing toys - otherwise they deceive themself.

    The term “chatbot” (chat bot, chatting bot, talking bot, chatbox, chat robot etc.) refers in most cases to an instrument to administrate a chatroom. The chatbot sometimes mimics as an user or as the admin, but it’s goal is to observe the conversations. Chatbots have admin status, they can kick, ban and block abusive or unwanted users. They serves as a help desk to answer user questions regarding the content, the chatroom, other users, how to switch to another channel etc. Therefore several commands (keywords) are available to trigger the chatbot’s activities.
    Most chatbots are silent and don’t talk without invitation - they are just spouting administration messages. But some chatbots are also chatterbots, and it’s possible to talk to them - mostly in a private conversation.

    In general the term “chatbot” is used by everybody, and it includes all of the meanings mentioned above. So it’s the most weak term here (beside of “bot”), because a chatbot could be nearly everything.

    Into my opinion a “chatterbot” consists of five parts: the chat engine (parser), the programmer of the chat engine, the personality (brain file, knowledge, character), the author of the personality, the interlocutor - but that’s a different story …

  6. 6 Christy Dena

    ???Bot??? is mostly used by people talking to a chatterbot, and then ???bot??? is often intended to be a contemptuous naming, just as a synonym to ???thing???, ???machine???, ???object??? in contrast to ???person??? or ???character???. Calling a chatterbot a ???bot??? is an insult.

    Bot is also used by programmers, though is the public domain. And there are also “botmasters”, another common term. I always use “bot” affectionately, and never mean it as an insult and haven’t come across people who use it as an insult. Perhaps it is in insult when used by people who prefer “chatterbot” or “conversational agent”?!

    I agree though, that “bot is the least useful naming here”.

  7. 7 Christy Dena

    Here is another use for “bot”, bot as zombie army for illegal activity… A recent article in Reuters details the crime:

    LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A 20-year-old accused of using hundreds of thousands of hijacked computers, or “bot nets,” to damage systems and send massive waves of spam across the Internet, pleaded guilty to federal charges on Monday.

    Jeanson James Ancheta, who prosecutors said was a well-known member of the “Botmaster Underground” — a secret network of hackers skilled in “bot” attacks — was arrested in November in what prosecutors said was the first such case of its kind.
    A bot is a program that surreptitiously installs itself on a computer so it be controls by a hacker. A bot net is a network of such robot, or “zombie,” computers, which can harness their collective power to do considerable damage or send out huge amounts of junk e-mail.

  8. 8 Dirk Scheuring

    In the taxonomy I use, Bot is one of the two subclasses of Actor, the other one being Client. Any actor plays a character, and it’s important to me that, conceptually, I can treat bots and clients the same, as actors playing characters. This makes it able for me to take a bird’s eye view on the control flow of a conversation: which actor is in control at which moment, and what the other actor could do about it.

  9. 9 Huma Shah

    More linguistic snobbery:

    ACE = artificial conversational entity

    First introduced in paper “A.L.I.C.E.: an ACE in Digitaland” (in computational linguistics track of European Conference on Computing & Philosophy, Vasteras, Sweden, June 2005).

    Why? To distinguish between the ‘naturals’ - the Confederates (hidden humans) from the artificial machines/programmes participating in Loebner’s Contests for Artificial Intelligence.

  10. 10 Ian Parker

    ?Quieres dormir con fosforo ?” How can we talk about chatterboxes when the basic understanding - as indicated by translation is so poor. I am unimressed with Alice. I got a translation :- “El barco attravesta una cerradura” and I then proceeded to talk about a holiday on the Grand Union canal. As predicted she fell apart.
    I was also going to speak to her about elastic stations (The season of spring = “La estacion de resorte) but did not get round to it.
    To me it is useless to talk about chatting or precision search until there is a system that can put primavera ,éclusia and correspondento first in terms of probability listing.
    live.com gives retrievals which seem to me to be spot on. This uses Latent Semantic Indexing. This is where research should be directed.

    My views are expressed in more detail in the above blogs/

  11. 11 John Lorry

    The program Virtual Woman, a chatbot that precedes A. L. I. C. E. but seems to be after Eliza, refers to itself in its 1980’s documentation for the DOS version that I have as a “Virtual Human”. There is no reference to it as a bot of any kind. Humorously enough, the DOS version still runs on my Windows Vista machine. I remember that Richard Wallace’s original college web site announcing Alice had a section listing “influences” that listed, among other things, Virtual Woman, but when the site moved to its own server that link disappeared…I’m assuming for politically correct reasons. The original site was still on its EDU server up until a few years ago; if anyone can find it again it would be interesting to see if he was using the term chatbot then or something else. As the site could easily be dated it could give a snapshot of the terms in use at the time.

  12. 12 Jeroen

    Mostly when I talk about a “Bot” I mostly refer to an stand-alone program that interferes with another running program (Like a game) And automates keystrokes (And sometimes even mouseclicks), which is mostly illegal (Like in games such as World of Warcraft).

  1. 1 WRT: Writer Response Theory » Blog Archive » Chatbot Idol–Contesting Innovation

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