“Conversational” AI Is Really Bad At Conversations

Cory Doctorow
5 min readJan 29

A read-only interlocutor is a robot troll.

A vintage 5.5" floppy disk. Its write-protection tab has been covered with the glaring red eye of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its label contains the scrawled word “ChatGPT.” In its center disc is a hypnotic spiral.
Cryteria/CC BY 3.0

In 1977, my father, a computer scientist, brought home a teletype terminal (a keyboard and a printer, no screen) and an acoustic coupler (a box with two suction-cups that matched up with the speaker and mic on the receiver of a standard Bell phone), and he connected it to the DEC PDP minicomputer at the University of Toronto. I was seven years old. I was hooked.

The PDP had a bunch of fun programs that a six year old could enjoy: a BASIC interpreter, a text adventure game, and, of course, Eliza, Joseph Weizenbaum’s simulated, text-based therapist program, a primitive chatbot that was programmed to make a rudimentary analysis of the sentences you typed and respond, picking out keywords to customize fill-in-the-blanks sentences.

Eliza was a surprisingly powerful tool, given how primitive its language capabilities were and how easy it was to trip it up and make it deliver the kind of nonsense dispelled the illusion that you were talking to a person.

There was something freeing about conversing with Eliza; it would take in my secret fears and aspirations, respond with encouraging — if bland — sentiments, and ask me to go on. It never got tired of listening to me, but eventually, I got tired of talking to it.

The problem was that Eliza was static. If its gentle, probing questions elicited any kind of realization on my part, that didn’t trigger any matching changes on its part. Its questions and answers didn’t evolve, even if my thinking did.

Talking to other people is a great way to work out your ideas. It’s fun to talk to people who agree with you, of course, but disagreements — especially the kind that spin up good-faith, productive arguments — produce real breakthroughs.

I love a good argument. My views have been profoundly transformed through argumentation, and there are arguments that I “lost” that ended up changing the entire course of my life.

I’m an Internet Person, so I’ve done a lot of arguing with strangers. Some of that arguing has been productive, but there is one kind of intellectual sparring partner that makes me want to beat my head against a wall: the Read-Only person.

Cory Doctorow

Writer, blogger, activist. Blog: https://pluralistic.net; Mailing list: https://pluralistic.net/plura-list; Mastodon: @pluralistic@mamot.fr