It occurred to me, watching the Mondale/Reagan debates on television, that, on one side at least, we were watching 2K man in action. Ol' Ronnie is not, let us be honest, about to surprise the world by coming up with, for instance, a Unified Field Theory. If he were to play chess against a large block of wood, then I for one would not know where to put my money. It also occurred to me that the people responsible for briefing Reagan for these confrontations have therefore to give him the bare minimum number of facts that he could get hold of, and the maximum number of ways in which he could get hold of them. Added to that he must have a lot of long stop responses with which to field questions which he did not know the answer to or simply did not understand. Which is exactly the way in which you set about writing a program to mimic conversation.
This quote comes from a Douglas Adams article in the British humorous weekly Punch, published sometime in the early '80s. Adams was an unusually clear thinker, as the following excerpt from The Restaurant at the end of the Universe illustrates. Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect have leapt into a matter transporter to escape certain death, and have been teleported to a space ark which they will later discover to be packed with cryogenically frozen telephone-sanitisers and advertising executives. In this scene, just after they arrive, they find themselves captured by the ark's Number Two officer and dragged to see its Captain:
Number Two's eyes narrowed and became what are known in the Shooting and Killing People trade as cold slits, the idea presumably being to give your opponent the impression that you have lost your glasses or are having difficulty keeping awake. Why this is frightening is an, as yet, unresolved problem.
He advanced on the Captain, his (Number Two's) mouth a thin hard line. Again, tricky to know why this is understood as fighting behaviour. If, while wandering through the jungle of Traal, you were to come across the fabled Ravenous Bugblatter Beast, you would have reason to be grateful if its mouth was a thin hard line rather than, as it usually is, a gaping mass of slavering fangs.
It does seem to me that Adams has a point. I have been punctured by dogs whose mouths I would have preferred to remain thin hard lines.
And his clear thinking makes much sense when applied to Reagan. That Punch quote was inspired when Adams combined his observations of the software industry — and perhaps of US politics — with an interest in interactive fiction, itself inspired when he began writing a text-adventure version of Hitch Hiker's . Adams explains, in a quote from Neil Gaiman's biography Don't Panic, that as he watched Reagan and Mondale:
I thought, 'This is exactly the way you program a computer to appear to be taking part in a conversation.' So, with a friend in New York, I was going to do a program to emulate Reagan, so you could sit down and talk to a computer and it would respond as Reagan would. And then we could do a Thatcher one, and after a while you could do all the world leaders, and get all the various modules to talk to each other.
After that we were going to do a program called God, and program all God's attributes into it, and you'd have all the different denominations of God on it ... you know, a Methodist God, a Jewish God, and so on... I wanted to be the first person to have computer software burned in the Bible Belt, which I felt was a rite of passage that any young medium had to pass through.
However, with the recession in the American computer industry, all that came to nothing, largely because the people who wanted to do it with me discovered they didn't have cars or money or jobs.