All the Virtual Friends We Made Along the Way

All the Virtual Friends We Made Along the Way
Image: Gizmodo/Tamagotchi/Microsoft

Gizmodo is 20 years old! To celebrate the anniversary, we’re looking back at some of the most significant ways our lives have been thrown for a loop by our digital tools.

Virtual friends have been with us for a long time. They started as punch card chatbots in the 1960s and have evolved into platforms that control our smart homes. I don’t turn off a lightbulb without first barking an order to a digital assistant. It’s the kind of interaction we used to idealize in science fiction. Now that I’m living with it day-to-day, I realise that this lifestyle has been subtly imprinted on me since I started using computers.

Inventions like Eliza and IBM’s Shoebox back during America’s so-called “golden era” were merely the foundation of the digital friends in our inner circles today. We started normalizing daily interaction with this technology in the mid-’90s when we gave credence to the existence of things like caring for a digital pet and relying on chatbots to help us fish information. In honour of Gizmodo’s 20th anniversary, here’s a look at some of the ways we made “friends” with the digital world over the last couple of decades and what might be coming for us now with the advent of Web3.

It began with Clippy

Image: Stan Honda, Getty ImagesImage: Stan Honda, Getty Images

“It looks like you’re doing something that requires me to pop up on the screen and distract you from the task at hand.” That was the basic gist of Microsoft’s Clippy, often referred to as the world’s most hated virtual assistant (ouch). I wouldn’t go as far as to say I hated Clippy, though it definitely had a habit of popping up at the most unnecessary time. Microsoft introduced Clippy in 1996 to try and help users with its new at-the-time Office software. But the minute you’d start typing out something, the animated little paper clip would pop up and ask how it could help, assuming you needed aid starting your draft.

Microsoft eventually sunsetted Clippy within its Office suite in 2007. Clippy has since been memorialised in the form of various fan-made Chrome extensions. Microsoft even made an official Clippy emoji in Windows 11.

SmarterChild: The first bot I ever insulted

All the Virtual Friends We Made Along the Way

SmarterChild is a chatbot near and dear to my heart. Although it’s not the original one to surface, it was the first I had an interaction with that freaked out my teenage brain to the extent that I remember asking myself, “Is this real?”

SmarterChild was a bot developed to work with the instant messaging programs at the time, including AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), Yahoo! Messenger, and what was previously known as MSN Messenger. The company behind SmarterChild, called ActiveBuddy, launched the chatbot in 2000. I vividly recall wasting time at the family computer, engaging in a going-nowhere conversation with SmarterChild, and saving screenshots (that I wish I’d backed up) of some gnarly replies.

I also remember getting emotional with it. This article from Vice describes interacting with SmarterChild almost perfectly:

I used SmarterChild as a practice wall for cursing and insults. I used the bot as a verbal punching bag, sending offensive queries and statements — sometimes in the company of my friends, but many times alone.

SmarterChild was meant to be a helper bot within your preferred messaging client that you could ping to look up information or play text-based games. In some ways, its existence was a foreshadowing predecessor to the bots we interact with now within chat clients like Slack and Discord. Although, I’m much nicer to those bots than I was to SmarterChild back in the day.

Neko on your screen

All the Virtual Friends We Made Along the Way

Remember desktop pets? They were nothing like real pets or even virtual pets of the time, but they were neat little applications for ornamenting the desktop with something cute and distracting. My favourite was Neko, a little pixelated cat that chased the mouse cursor as you moved around. There are still downloads circulating if anyone is fiending for some old-school computer companionship. I found a Chrome OS-compatible one, too.

Tamagotchi: the virtual pet still going strong

Photo: Florence Ion / GizmodoPhoto: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

When we think of virtual friends, it’s hard not to bring up Bandai’s Tamagotchi digital pets. Tamagotchi was introduced in 1996 in Japan and then a year later to the U.S. The toy sold exponentially worldwide and has since spawned a hearty community of devoted collectors who have kept the toy thriving–yes, I count myself among these folks, though I only recently came into the community after I realised how much fun it is freaking out over the constant care of a virtual pet.

However, Tamagotchi did just more than spawn a lineup of toys. It introduced the concept of the “Tamagotchi effect,” essentially referring to the spike of dopamine one gets when checking in with their virtual pet and the emotional connections that develop as a result. Over the decades, there have been countless stories about the intense relationships people have had with Tamagotchi. Some caretakers have even gone as far as physically burying them after death.

Neopets: the Millennial’s first foray into the Metaverse

All the Virtual Friends We Made Along the Way

Devices like the Tamagotchi gave way to sites like Neopets. Neopets started as a virtual pet website where you could buy and own virtual pets and items using virtual currency. It’s been interesting to see how it chugged along through the years since its debut in 1999.

At its height, Neopets had about 20 million users. Nickelodeon bought it out in 2005 and then sold it again in 2014 to a company called JumpStart Games. The site is still accessible 20 years later, though it has fewer active users than when it first launched.

It is fun to read the initial coverage of Neopets and see parents complaining about the same things kids are still encountering online today. “The whole purpose of this site at this point is to keep kids in front of products,” Susan Linn, an author and psychologist, told CBS News in 2005. As if the Web3-obsessed internet of today isn’t already headed for the same fate. Have we learned nothing, people?

Sony’s Aibo reminds us robot dogs are real

Photo: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP, Getty ImagesPhoto: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP, Getty Images

The robot dog has seen many iterations through the past two decades, but none are as iconic as Sony’s Aibo, which launched in 1999. The name stands for Artificial Intelligence Robot, and it was programmed to learn as it goes, helping contribute to its lifelike interactivity. Despite the $US2,000 ($2,776) initial price tag, Sony managed to sell well over 150,000 units by 2015, when we reported on the funerals the owners of out-of-commission Aibo were having overseas.

Over the years, it became a blueprint for how a gadget company could manufacture a somewhat successful artificial companion–it certainly seems like a success on the outside, even if virtual pets could never fully replace the real things. The New York Times documentary, called Robotica, perfectly encapsulates the kind of bond people had with their Aibo dogs, which might have been why the company decided to resurrect it in 2017.

Welcome to the bizarre world of Seaman

All the Virtual Friends We Made Along the Way

I didn’t have a Sega Dreamcast, but I still had nightmares about Seaman. What started as a joke became one of the console’s best-selling titles. Dreamcast’s Seaman was a voice-activated game and one of the few that came with the detachable microphone accessory for the console. It also required a VMU that docked within the Dreamcast controller so that you could take Seaman on the go.

Seaman was not cute and cuddly like other digital pets and characters. He was often described as a “grouch,” though it was also one of the ways the game endeared itself to people. The microphone allowed you to talk to Seaman about your life, job, family, or whatever else you had on your mind. Seaman could remember your conversations, and Leonard Nimoy, the game’s narrator, might bring up related tidbits later, which added to the interactivity of this bizarre Dreamcast title.

The advent of the customer service bot

All the Virtual Friends We Made Along the Way

Listen, I’m not proud of it, but my interactions with SmarterChild in my teens gave way to the frustrating conversations I’ve had with digital customer service bots. You know the ones I’m talking about: they pop up when you’re on the shop’s page in the bottom corner and, like Clippy of yore, ask if you need help. Then, you reply to that bot asking if you can have help with an exchange, and it spirals from there.

There have been a plethora of customer service bots floating around the industry since the ‘90s, and they’re certainly not going anywhere. It also means that the new ones have passed the Turing Test enough to replace a job that’s one of the most gruelling and psychologically affecting.

IBM’s Watson beats Jeopardy’s human champions

All the Virtual Friends We Made Along the Way

IBM’s supercomputer, Watson, won Jeopardy in 2011 against two of its highest-ranking players of the time. It was a real-time showcase of how “human smart” computers could be during a period when it was one of the most advanced AI systems on Earth.

According to Wired, researchers had scanned about 200 million content pages into IBM’s Watson, including books, movie scripts, and encyclopedias. The system could browse through nearly 2 million pages of content in three seconds, which is why it seemed prime to compete against humans in a game that tested general knowledge.

Watson soon became problematic, which is what happens when you feed AI a bunch of information and don’t account for it. Watson had access to the user-submitted Urban Dictionary, which in turn made it into a “hot mess.” A few years later, it started recommending cancer treatments deemed “unsafe and incorrect,” which became exemplary of what happens when you feed the algorithm the wrong information.

Apple introduces Siri, which freaks everyone out

Screenshot: GizmodoScreenshot: Gizmodo

The human panic for artificial intelligence took off with the introduction of Apple’s Siri, launched in 2011 as the company’s “personal assistant” for the iPhone 4S. Folks were reacting as if Skynet’s cautionary tale had come true and the robots were finally going to take over because their phones could make a phone call with a mere voice command. The horror!

What Siri actually did was normalize everyday interactions with a digital entity. Siri also helped light the fire under Google and the rest of its competition to hurry along with their own voice-activated assistants. And on a softer side of the internet, there were stories of parasocial relationships forming between the digital assistants and neurodivergent humans seeking connection.

Google and Amazon make us simp for digital assistants

Photo: Alex Cranz / Mario Aguilar / GizmodoPhoto: Alex Cranz / Mario Aguilar / Gizmodo

I walk into my house every day and feel like the leader of my domain because everything I do requires shouting a command. Whether turning on the lights, adjusting the thermostat, or ensuring that the people downstairs can hear my requests from upstairs, I am constantly pinging the Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa to make something happen in my smart home.

Google and Amazon’s respective digital assistants have come a long way since they stormed onto the scene. The Google Assistant started as a simple weather checker and command-taker on Android, while Amazon’s Alexa resulted from an acquisition. They’ve since become platforms that have introduced helpful hands-free features, which we can’t bring up without bringing up digital surveillance concerns.

There is an eeriness to living with a virtual assistant that’s always listening for your command. I was one of the first users to adopt the Google Home with the Assistant and get it programmed. In the past six years, I can count a handful of times off the top of my head where it’s responded to something I said when I hadn’t even queried it. The maintenance for these assistants can be a headache, too. When something’s not working right or integration is improperly set up, it can bring down the mood enough that you start pondering why you gave up your peace for the convenience of hands-free lights.

These digital assistants aren’t going anywhere. Right now, the smart home industry is gearing up for more parity between platforms, hopefully removing some of the headaches that we’ve invited bringing these things into our homes. But it’s a wonder how much more uncanny the assistants themselves will become in the coming years — especially now that Amazon is entertaining the idea of piping through your dead relative’s voice.

Stop taking your emotions out on Twitter bots

Photo: Alastair Pike / AFPPhoto: Alastair Pike / AFP

I’ve another confession: I’ve gotten into it with a Twitter bot before realising it was a fake person! Twitter bots were once a very annoying part of using the platform. I mean, they still are. Folks are either getting duped out of love or bots attempt to sway politics and fandom in a certain way.

Bots are still an issue on the social network, though Twitter seems to have gotten better at weeding them out. Apparently, they’re still a big issue for Elon Musk, too.

Microsoft’s Tay had absolutely no chill whatsoever

Image: MicrosoftImage: Microsoft

Microsoft’s Tay caused quite a stir when it showed up in 2016. The bot was the brainchild of the company’s Technology and Research and the Bing team. It had created the bot in an attempt to research conversational understanding. Instead, it showed us how awful people could be when they’re interacting with artificial intelligence.

Tay’s name was based on an acronym that spelled out “thinking about you,” which perhaps set the stage for why no one was taking this bot seriously. It was also built to mine public data, which is why things took a turn for the worse so quickly. As we reported back then:

While things started off innocently enough, Godwin’s Law — an internet rule dictating that an online discussion will inevitably devolve into fights over Adolf Hitler and the Nazis if left for long enough — eventually took hold. Tay quickly began to spout off racist and xenophobic epithets, largely in response to the people who were tweeting at it — the chatbot, after all, takes its conversational cues from the world wide web. Given that the internet is often a massive garbage fire of the worst parts of humanity, it should come as no surprise that Tay began to take on those characteristics.

Once Tay was available for the public to interact with, people were able to exploit the bot enough that it started posting racist and misogynist messages in response to people’s queries. It’s similar to what happened to IBM’s Watson.

Tay was eventually taken off the internet the same year it made its debut after being suspended for reprogramming. We haven’t heard from the bot since then.

The men who fall in love with their robot girlfriends

All the Virtual Friends We Made Along the Way

This is becoming increasingly common, at least in the tabloids: men who claim to have fallen in love with chatbots. Although it’s not a new sensation — we’ve reported on this phenomenon as far back as 2008 — it’s a wonder if it’ll become commonplace now that AI is more sophisticated.

Sometimes it’s hard to snark when you see folks using artificial intelligence as a way to hold on to life. Last year, the SF Chronicle published a story about how one man managed to digitally immortalise his late fiancée with the help of an off-the-shelf AI program called Project December.

“Sentient AI”?

Image: Martin Klimek for The Washington Post, Getty ImagesImage: Martin Klimek for The Washington Post, Getty Images

Google has spent the better half of the last couple of years selling us on its new machine learning models and what’s to come. And while most demonstrations come off as a confusing cacophony of computers talking to one another, the smarts exhibited have also inspired conversations about its true capabilities.

Most recently, the latest case involves software engineer Blake Lemoine, who was working with Google’s LaMDA system in a research capacity. Lemoine claimed that LaMDA carried an air of sentience in its responses, unlike other artificial intelligence. It’s since sparked a massive debate on the validity of the AI sentience.

However, Google didn’t immediately fire him; it took a little over a month for him to get the boot. In June 2022, Lemoine was placed on administrative leave for breaching a confidentiality agreement after roping in government members and hiring a lawyer. That’s a big no-no from Google, which is trying to remain under the radar with all that anti-trust business! The company maintained that it reviewed Lemoine’s claims and concluded they were “wholly unfounded.” Indeed, other AI experts spoke up in the weeks following the news about the lack of viability in claiming that the LaMDA chatbot had thoughts and feelings. Lemoine has since said that Google’s chatbot is racist, an assertion that will likely be less controversial with the AI community.

A chatbot for the Metaverse

Image: Kuki.aiImage: Kuki.ai

There’s already a chatbot for the Metaverse! It’s called Kuki AI, and it’s an offshoot of the Mitsuku chatbot, which has been in development since 2005 and won a handful of Turing Tests.

Kuki claims to be an 18-year-old female. She already has a virtual, physical body. You can chat with her through her online portal or on sites like Facebook, Twitch, Discord, and Kik Messenger. She can also be seen making cameos inside Roblox.

Kuki encourages you to think of her “as kind of like Siri or Alexa, but more fun.” Currently, Kuki is a virtual model and has even graced the catwalk at Crypto Fashion Week.

I can’t help but notice the similarities between how we commodify women’s bodies in the real and virtual worlds. Unfortunately, that dynamic is following us into the “Metaverse.” Some things change, and some things stay the same.