"Julie" vies for title of Most Human Computer

by Charles Ker
Staff writer

A conversation with 14-year-old Julie gives insight into what would appear to be a well-rounded Grade 9 mind.

She likes Hawaiian pizza, Mel Gibson, volleyball and playing saxophone in the school band. She doesn't have a boyfriend, prefers soft rock to rap and likes math because "it's so nicely self-contained."

Next month, the outgoing teenager from Sooke hopes to wow New York City judges with her personality and deft repartee in the 1997 Loebner Prize Competition. Her ultimate goal is to convince the judging panel she's human.

Richard Gibbons, Julie's personality trainer, has no illusions.

"It's an unbelievably hard task which nobody has come remotely close to passing," says the affable software developer who created Julie on the Web at UBC. "The judges will figure out she's a computer program within four or five messages, maybe fewer."

The Loebner competition is based on the question, "if a computer could think, how could we tell?"

British mathematician Alan Turing first made the suggestion that if a computer could talk to a person and its responses were indistinguishable from those of a human, the computer could be said to be thinking. Fifty-seven years later, computer dialogue is still unfailingly fallible.

Gibbons started developing Julie's personality for a project based in the UBC Computer Science laboratory known as E-GEMS--Electronic Games for Education in Mathematics and Science. She is one of four characters in Phoenix Quest, an interactive game designed to make learning more fun for children age nine to 13. Julie's character was created to see if girls could learn more about math and science by interacting with a personality who shared their interests and views.

Students log into Phoenix Quest and help Julie and other characters solve various math puzzles they encounter in the magical land called the Phoenix Archipelago. Participants pose questions to Julie which she promptly answers. She also offers questions and comments of her own.

"Anything that Julie says has come out of my mind," says Gibbons. "You can blame me if she says something nasty."

For the last seven months, Gibbons has been reviewing log files of Julie's conversations with B.C. students. When he finds a spot where she gets tripped up or off track, he goes into the program and creates a new information node triggered by a certain word or words. This, in turn, activates a new series of possible responses.

Julie is not limited to talking about Phoenix Quest topics. Gibbons says that roughly five per cent of her personality deals with the game and the remainder with real-life topics important to teenage girls.

Gibbons has entered a 2,500-word transcript of some of Julie's conversations to the Loebner competition. Eight computer programs advance to the final showdown with judges at the Salmagundi Club in New York City.

Judges will type questions on any topic and watch as the participating computer personalities type their responses.

One of Julie's tricks is that she can vary her typing speeds, giving the illusion of a struggling teenage typist.

Gibbons has gone over conversations from past competitions and is confident in Julie's conversational ability.

"In my opinion, Julie responds as well if not better than many of the previous winners," he says. "She has a natural gift of the gab."

The Loebner Prize Prize Competition in Artificial Intelligence was established in 1990 by the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Center for Behavioral Studies. This year's winner receives $2,000, a bronze medal and the title of Most Human Computer.

Julie and Phoenix Quest, based on a novel by local children's author Julie Lawson, can be reached at http://www.cs.ubc.ca/nest/egems/home.html.