Remembering Smarterchild, the Pioneering AI Chatbot of the Early 2000s

If you were active on AOL Instant Messenger in the early 2000s, there’s a good chance you had this early form of conversational AI in your buddy list.

Who was Smarterchild?

Smarterchild, developed by ActiveBuddy, Inc., was released on AIM and MSN Messenger in 2001. A year later, the chatbot had struck up more than 9 million conversations.

As the Washington Post observed in September 2002, in a piece entitled Web May Hold the Key to Achieving Artificial Intelligence:

“If you ran into him online, you might be struck by the kid’s prodigious memory. He calls himself Smarterchild and can recite a litany of facts: this season’s entire baseball lineup, every word in the dictionary, and the weather in major cities across the country.”

‘A new species of chatterbot’

In the piece, reporter Ariana Eunjung Cha describes Smarterchild as a “new species of chatterbots that are renewing debate about the extent to which computers can achieve intelligence.”

From the beginning, Smarterchild was more than just a novelty.

Created by engineer Timothy Kay, the chatbot provided users free access to a variety of useful info, including weather forecasts, news updates, stock quotes, game scores, movie showtimes, and flight details.

Smarterchild also had interactive games and quizzes.

Natural language processing and AI

Under the hood, Smarterchild possessed a range of technologies that were quite advanced for the time, centered around natural language processing (NLP) and AI.

Natural language processing algorithms enabled Smarterchild to understand and interpret the user’s text inputs and respond in a conversational manner.

As one of the first widescale consumer-oriented applications of natural language processing, Smarterchild demonstrated the potential for AI to engage in meaningful dialogue with humans.

Pattern matching, combined with heuristics, identified keywords and phrases in user inputs to trigger predefined responses and actions.

Integrated data

The service was integrated with various data sources that provided real-time information.

Serving the data to end users required sophisticated data retrieval and parsing, so the info could be processed and presented in a casual tone.

While not as advanced as today’s AI, Smarterchild leveraged machine learning to improve interactions with users.

By analyzing conversations and feedback, the chatbot could refine its responses and become a more effective communicator over time.

Business applications

It wasn’t long until businesses recognized the potential reach and engagement chatbots like Smarterchild could unlock.

Companies started using Smarterchild for promotional purposes, like movie promos, and launching their own chatbots to engage users.

Legacy

Though Smarterchild did not evolve significantly beyond its original capabilities, its success and the technologies behind it influenced the development of future conversational AI applications.

The principles of natural language processing and user interaction that were foundational to Smarterchild have been built upon in the development of today’s virtual assistants.

ActiveBuddy rebranded as Colloquis to focus on developing conversational AI tech for business applications.

Microsoft acquired Colloquis in 2007, leading to the discontinuation of SmarterChild and the shift of focus toward integrating conversational AI into Microsoft’s offerings.

In a 2023 retrospective, ActiveBuddy co-founder Peter Levitan told TechCrunch, “When you talked to SmarterChild, it knew who you were when you came back. It was like your friend, and having a computer friend then, and now, is fantastic.”

Fellow co-founder Robert Hoffer’s take is more nuanced.

Evoking parallels with Frankenstein, Hoffer said: “It’s wonderful that SmarterChild sort of opened the Pandora’s Box. Unfortunately now, I feel like I have a certain amount of responsibility to share with the world: the good, the bad, and the ugly.”