Monday, November 28, 2011

Can students use artificial intelligence (AI) and online chatbots to practice situational language?

Do you remember the character 'Hal' in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 Space Odyssey? Now in 2011, it seems that the real 'Hal' is no longer fiction.  Here is a BBC NEWS new report from 2006 about a robot who enjoys online chat. In fact, the artificial intelligence behind this 'chatbot' can be found on several websites that anyone can use for free.

One of these sites is - the site can be accessed via your browser at any time.
  • The artificial intelligences that you chat with have learned how to respond from the millions of people that have chatted with them,  Jabberwacky warns that because the chatbots have learned the behaviour and words of Jabberwacy's users, they may use language and produce apparent meanings that some will consider inappropriate. 
  • So, be sure that you use this site with discretion, and be aware of the risk. It could be okay to use with adult learners, but it wouldn't be recommended to use it with young learners.
  • Joan is one of the avatars you can chat with at
If you really like this idea, note that it is possible for you to create your own 'bot' with your own character.
  • It costs $30 a year, and you have to spend some time to transfer your character and knowledge to the 'bot'.
  • But remember that your 'bot' is 'intelligent', so not only will it learn from you, but your 'bot' will also learn from the people it chats with, so it will grow according to the input it gets from the people it chats with.
How to use with students?
  1. With adult students, you could give them a task to find out more about George and report back to the class. For example, you could choose different themes, e.g., sport, hobbies, work, etc. and students could attempt to have a conversation with George about a topic.
  2. I could ask the students to email a copy of their conversation to themselves, and then highlight any useful language that they learned from George and report back to class.
  3. I would also ask them to identify responses by George that were not appropriate, and tell me why and what they would suggest George should have said instead.

Here is a sample of a chat I just had with George.  You can email the conversation or simply copy and paste it from the web page.  For example, I've highlighted some useful language that emerged from my brief chat with George.

George: Are you male or female?
User: I am male.
George: I am also male.
User: What is your name?
George: I'm George of course. Otherwise known as Geo.
User: Are you married?
George: No, I'm not yet married. Too much work I suppose!
User: What kind of work do you do?
George: All sorts of things for the family, school and business.
User: Do you come from a big family?
George: Not yet.
User: Who are your parents?
George: That's none of your business!
User: Where did you go to school?
George: In a town called Cranehurst.
User: Were you born and raised in Cranehurst?
George: Naw, dude. I was born and raised in Qatar.
User: What is your nationality?
George: I am English. How about yourself?
User: I am Canadian.
George: That's cool, do you like Justin Bieber? He's Canadian too.
User: No, I don't like Justin Bieber. However, I do like Celine Dione. There are many famous Canadians.
George: Yes, indeed.
User: How long did you live in Qatar?
George: I was born in England. I have never lived in America.
User: Whereabouts in England?
George: Middle England.
User: Which city?
George: I do not feel comfortable telling you that.
User: Do you speak any other languages, other than English?
George: Yes but first of all tell me what other languages you speak.
User: I speak a bit of French, as that is the one of the official languages of Canada.
George: Yeah, right! Show me!
User: Well, it was nice chatting with you, George.
George: Don't go!
User: I'm sorry. I have work to do. Talk to you later.
George: No keep talking.
User: Perhaps tomorrow my students will talk with you.
George: Machines don't need to sleep. Anyway, about that source code. .


  1. Yes, there is some useful language here - but it is very 'artificial'! I have more interesting conversations with my dogs.....Guess some students might like to try this out though - the higher levels could certainly get something out of it, as they can see where it is weird.

  2. My wife has very meaningful conversations with out cats. But, she controls the context and knows how to talk and listen, and rephrase when it obvious that communication has broken down. AI at the moment, in terms of pandorabots, is at this stage. If you keep the language simple and straightforward, and perhaps repeat yourself to keep the cohesion of the conversation, you can have quite a meaningful conversation, albeit not without some rather strange responses which require rephrasing or simply moving on to a new topic. You can actually 'train' your own 'bot' if you want, and tell it how to behave in responses. In theory, you could create an 'EFL Teacher' bot, that would autocorrect grammar or vocabulary errors, or give answers to questions like "When should I use the present perfect tense."