“There should be an app for that,” I said. “We should build it!” So we did.
“It” is Duologue, a chatbot for Facebook Messenger that rescues you from uncomfortable silences. Visit the page, start chatting with it, and it will offer you some options for continuing the conversation when it looks like the well has run dry. Much like the bottom of my pint glass on the evening we decided to build Duologue.
Beer in hand, I was surrounded by a bunch of developers. One of them told a story about a miserable dinner he’d been at with people of importance. He described how as the evening wore on he found himself staring into the abyss of silence, grasping with decreasing success for something to say that would keep the conversation going. “There should be an app for that,” I opined.
We could have relegated my remark to the whimsical fancy of pub chatter, an aside that provoked a momentary laugh. Instead, we spent the next three months building Duologue as an extracurricular project.
Initially, we thought Duologue would give its flustered user something to say, a witticism or fact to launch into the silence that haunts dying conversations. I realised early on, though, that the key to conversation is having something to ask. Joseph Weizenbaum described in 1966 why he chose to script his famous ELIZA program in the form of psychiatric interviews: the open-ended questioning ensures that “one of the participating pair is free to assume the pose of knowing almost nothing of the real world.” The speaker (the person who is having questions asked of them) does all the real work “by attributing to his conversational partner all sorts of background knowledge, insights and reasoning ability,” which enables the speaker to maintain the illusion that they have been heard and understood.
There are many ELIZA replicas out there today; search for "ELIZA program" and you can find one to play with for experiencing this mirage of having been understood by a machine. The good news is that this trick works for people just as well as it works for computer programs. Once you’ve cracked that you can learn to be a pretty decent conversationalist on any topic.
The technical key to Duologue is a state machine, a piece of kit that transitions between states based on input conditions. The automated voice mail system you encounter when calling your bank is a type of state machine: you arrive at each particular state through the options you choose before the state you’re in.
Duologue’s states work on the principle that the kinds of questions you’ll want to ask depend on how well you know the person you’re talking to (intimacy) and where you are in the journey of the conversation. Much like a story, a conversation has a beginning, middle, and end. For each of these states, Duologue offers up questions that could fill the yawning void of silence. If the first couple options are not good enough, the user can keep asking Duologue for more of the same or press the "panic" button for emergency questions designed to make you laugh.
Duologue is intended for use in those harrowing social arenas like networking events and parties where people tend to circulate a lot in a fugue of polite small talk. Unlike ELIZA, we don’t anticipate people using Duologue to spark ever-more-detailed confessions about people’s deepest fears and dreams but we think it can help everyone feel a little more comfortable with sticky social situations.
As we were releasing our chatbot to the wilds of Facebook Messenger, we ran into an unexpected hitch: it seemed our little chatbot would only talk to its developers and no one else. There was an irony in our conversation-helper chatbot refusing to talk to anyone; fortunately, an irony that our first testers noted with a wry smile. Now that this hitch (caused by an errant privacy setting) is surmounted, we hope it makes a few more people smile too.