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© 2002 Joy Harwood

me I first learned about chatterbots by being one. I may not be a computer program, but I know what itís like to participate in conversations without understanding them. It goes beyond daydreaming. Itís a life of dreaming, thanks to my oddly wired mind. In my earliest memories, Iím hearing peopleís voices from far away, as if underwater. My own voice seemed to be miles away. My understanding was on a different plane.

My brother and I once rode our bikes home, except he didnít come home. I was just a little ahead of him when he was hit by a car. I didnít hear anything, just went in to a dark empty house and studied my Spanish for hours. I noticed nothing unusual until my mother called from the hospital and said that David was all right.

Years later, Iíd get angry when I couldnít keep up with lectures, roleplaying games, or group conversations. I could hear the sounds or think about the words, but I couldnít do both. My hearing was fine, my IQ high enough for Mensa. Intelligence might have helped, but I still had trouble. I could think, but it was in a different way, a way that was incompatible with the hub of my outer life.

In all but the simplest conversations, I heard only fragments. I responded to those fragments as realistically as I could. You can only ask for a repeat so many times. I didnít hear too many jokes except for the punchline. The rest of the merriment I simply absorbed through the people around me, by watching their faces and feeling what they felt. This became a large part of my Ďlisteningí skills.

All my life, I wondered what was going on. At last, in my senior year of college, a psychologist gave me an answer. My problem had a name: Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD). He might have had the sense to give me this information in writing instead of explaining it to me orally! It took months to get something sent to me in a form I could understand.

That was years ago. Iíve found that the easiest way to deal with my learning disability is to do what I do best: communicate in writing. Online I am truly in my element, no longer hampered by my brainís slow processing of the spoken word. I follow my own pace and type more fluently than I could ever speak. I finally get to be myself.

I think my experience has been useful in designing chatterbots. I know what itís like to give the illusion of understanding. Most people canít really tell whether Iím listening to them or not, even today.

If I can pass the Turing test, it shouldnít be too many years before a bot follows suit. It's not just a matter of plugging along in the right direction; the human mind takes a far more winding path to get where it's going. Someone will create a program which 'thinks' well enough to be mistaken for a human, but this won't happen through pattern matching or neural nets. It will take a new theory.

Finding this theory will require us to borrow from the diverse ideas within many disciplines. Some see it in a marriage of neuroscience and computer science. I think since we are human, a more low-tech, human blend is needed: psychology, education, sociology, philosophy, and maybe even peace studies.

Each of these disciplines has structured, specific theories as to what makes human interaction work. Each is being built upon every day. Maybe what we learn in the process will make life easier for people like me.

P.S. I have a new idea about rewiring my brain. Last year during the holidays, I spent a lot of time sitting in bed crocheting gifts and listening to the same dozen or so Christmas songs on the radio. To my surprise, I suddenly understood the words better than I used to. It felt like my ears were working better. Was it the repetition? Was it the meditative nature of simple crochet projects? Or was it the music itself?

As a child I heard almost nothing but talk shows on the radio, certainly none of that devil music. Now I'm making up for lost time.

P.P.S. Another revelation: I can passively understand German (hearing an American talk on the phone in German) even if I can't speak or write it. It doesn't stick to the verbal part of my brain, but I get the basics anyway. I'm told this is common, especially if started in childhood. (Mom has spoken on the phone to our German relatives all my life.) Food for thought.