This lecture begins by looking at the state of the art in modelling realistic conversation with computers over the last 40 years. Yorick Wilks argues that there has been real progress, even though some systems of the late 1960s were remarkably good, a fact largely forgotten now.

Yorick then moves on to ask what we would want in a conversational agent that was designed for a long-term relationship with a user, rather than the carrying out of a single brief task, like buying a railway ticket. Such agents he calls ‘companionable’ and he distinguishes several functions for such agents, but the feature they share will be that, in some definable sense, an artificial Companion should know a great deal about its owner – derived both from conversation and from the internet itself – and can use that information.

For this lecture, it is not important what form, robotic or otherwise, a Companion has and Yorick doesn’t focus on developments in speech understanding and generation but just assumes the state of the art. The focus is, first, on the technical issues of what such a Companion should know and how it can gain and use such knowledge though the understanding of conversations and searching the internet; and, secondly, on what the social implications of such Companions will be: will we trust them, will a Government or their manufacturer demand access to what they know about us, will they talk to each other about us, and what will happen to their unique knowledge of us when we die?

About the speakers