“When can I see u”
“can’t I have a cold”
“I’ll bring u chicken soup”
“thanks I’ll make a note of that”
“sorry I’m traveling”
“Just tell me when”
“Do you even like me?”
“I have no clue”
This text-messaging conversation isn’t going much of anywhere–and that’s exactly the point. I’m playing the role of the pushy would-be suitor, and the evasive responses are being generated by Ghostbot, a new feature of a service called Burner. Ghostbot is designed to allow someone–most likely a female someone–to ignore unwanted text messages. Such as ones from a person who wants a date and doesn’t know how to handle rejection.
Available via iOS and Android apps, Burner lets you set up a phone number that sits between anyone trying to call you and the actual number assigned to you by your wireless carrier. As its name suggests, you can delete that virtual number at any time and get yourself a new one, giving you the ability to hand out your number without giving anyone the permanent and unrestricted right to contact you.
When Burner debuted in 2012, it didn’t do much except let you burn phone numbers, and its primary use-case scenarios involved dating, Craigslist, and other interactions involving people who you don’t know very well and might end up dealing with only briefly. Since then, its users have found numerous consumer and small-business applications for it, some of which surprise even its inventors. It’s evolved into a smart phone number with a variety of capabilities and the ability, via a suite of features called “Burner Connections,” to meld itself with third-party services.
For instance, you can create a Burner number that automatically dumps photos people text to it into a Dropbox folder, which might be a handy way to run a contest or collect snapshots after an event. Using Evernote, you can run a mini-information service by teaching a Burner number to send canned responses to phrases people send via text messages. Or you can have your Burner number automatically upload all your voicemail messages to SoundCloud.
“We didn’t set out to build a developer platform, per se, but one is emerging on top of what we’re doing,” says cofounder Greg Cohn.
It’s not startling, therefore, that Burner wants to latch onto the current mania for chatbots. As with high-profile initiatives from companies such as Facebook and Microsoft, Burner is opening up its platform to allow for third-party bots. But because it’s Burner, its efforts are centered around phone number-based texting rather than a messaging app such as Facebook Messenger.
Any Burner user can enable Ghostbot for messages from any incoming phone number. But it’s also meant as inspiration for developers who Burner hopes will devise an army of bots, thereby enhancing the appeal of its service. “It is a valuable privacy-oriented feature from point of view of Burner users and general consumers,” says Cohn, adding that it draws on conversations the company had with members of the Bye Felipe community, which shares creepy messages from dating sites. “It’s also a proof of concept for a class of things that can be done when you build an agent embedded into a phone.”
The result won’t be winning any Turing tests. Ghostbot isn’t any more of a convincing simulation of a real person than most current bots, which still spend a lot of time faking their way through chatter they don’t truly understand. When I tried role-playing as a persistent jackass, it mostly talked about how busy it was, and sometimes repeated explanations (“I have way too many social obligations right now”).
The goal, Cohn explains, is to trap real-world persistent jackasses in conversational limbo. For a woman warding off unwanted attention, he says, “It’s a no-win situation. If they don’t reply, it’s taken as an affront. If they do, it’s taken as encouragement. Either way, it can escalate.” The service responds only after a pause of a random number of minutes, just to string things out even further.
And if a person who’s talking to Ghostbot does figure out it’s an automaton? Well, being given the brush-off by a computer should be a strong hint to almost anyone, total knuckleheads possibly excepted.
The whole goal of Ghostbot is to show outsiders how to construct bots that work within Burner, so it makes sense that the company didn’t tackle the project on its own. It collaborated with Voxable, which specializes in building conversational interfaces for both text- and voice-based systems, and leveraged technology from API.ai, which provides tools for chatbot builders.
Film and comics writer Peter Miriani provided the dialogue, which Cohn says aims to be clever rather than stridently realistic, and to diffuse tense situations with humor. The bot is meant to respond intelligently to different sorts of incoming messages, but in my tests, it kept its cool and didn’t get totally obnoxious even when I was an appalling jerk. “We spent a lot of time thinking about what the personality should be,” Cohn explains.
Ghostbot may be, on one level, a form of entertainment–at least for the Burner user who switches it on. But Cohn emphasizes its goals are ultimately serious. “This is not ordering a pizza,” he says. “This bot works for you. For us, this is core to our sweet spot, and also leverages technology in useful and creative ways. It’s a taste of the future for us.”