Picture this: the malevolent, relentless HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, only this time he's clean-shaven, obedient and strangely adverse to gruesome human annihilation. Now throw in a catalog of portfolio management skills, some direct marketing know-how, and an inventory of language tutoring capabilities. Suddenly, you've got an indispensable tool for the new world of work: an intelligent software robot built to aid, facilitate and carry on business with no fear of time zones, dialects or foreign currencies.
Welcome to Artificial Life, Inc., where bots reign supreme.
In this downtown Boston office, an international staff of employees from India, China, Switzerland, Germany, and the U.S. is working to introduce a new realm and caliber of technology to the business world. The bots created here are designed to forever alter the way we perform financial services, e-commerce, language learning, customer support, direct marketing and information gathering on the Web. Much of what Artificial Life is proposing sounds absurd, but all of it is compelling and terribly interesting.
Artificial Life defines a bot as "a program that 'lives' on computers and interacts in a human-like manner with the user." Until now, bots have existed solely within the walls of research institutions and universities, however Artificial Life now aims to usher them into the Internet marketplace — a virtual community where language-independent robots could theoretically follow commands much quicker and easier than humans.
"It's a small world and it's getting smaller everyday through the Internet and the advancement of technologies," says Artificial Life CFO Robert Pantano. "Those who are more cognizant of that will be ahead of the business curve. I wish we had more counterparts in the U.S. who were aware of that fact."
Artificial Life officially hatched in 1994, but it wasn't until two years ago that the organization broke away from its parent company and began to focus on the development of intelligent software bots. It was in September 1997 that scientist, professor, and businessman Eberhard Schoneburg bought the U.S. subsidiary of Neurotec, a company he co-founded in his native Germany. And Artificial Life, Inc. was born.
Quickly, the company turned its attention toward the capacity for software bots in the new economy. Within a year, Artificial Life put its first bot on the Web in order to gauge reaction and potential. Artificial Life supplied the technology. Users supplied the knowledge base, including language, conversation and information.
"We were blown away," Pantano says. "One person talked to the bot about God for an hour and a half. The bot wasn't programmed to talk about God, so we felt really proud about the inferential knowledge we had built into that bot."
Today, Artificial Life boasts the technology and talent to create bots that can answer and respond to e-mail in an automated, natural-language format; monitor individual's stock portfolios and investments; support customer service call centers; provide marketing solutions through intense customer profiling; and locate and extract specific information from documents and databases. Perhaps the most internationally-minded Artificial Life product is the ALife-Personal-Tutor, which remains in the developmental stage now, but will eventually teach world languages by extracting users' profile information through natural language conversations and then using that information to adapt the difficulty and content of the language lessons.
"The first iteration of that tutor technology is the German-language Einstein bot, which is a test to see how people respond to this technology," Pantano says. "Einstein walks you through aspects of his life and responds to questions about his life with dialog, as well as historical video and audio clips."
The educational Einstein CD-Rom, available for the first time this month, represents what Artificial Life does best: integrating cultures and adapting technology to diminish international communication gaps. With a research and development base in St. Petersburg, Russia, a sales and marketing office in Frankfurt, Germany, and a European headquarters in Lucerne, Switzerland, Artificial Life may be just the company to create a world of business without borders.
"This is just the beginning, " Pantano says. "We see this getting to a point where you have your own representative bot communicating on a World Wide Web of nothing but bots in your behalf while you're not on your PC. The bot will contact you through your beeper, pager, cell phone, etc. It's pretty wild."
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