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Vacuum-Cleaner Bot Spouts Its Own Pickup Line

Tue., May 13, 1997

Chat-room visitors beware: In the near future that friendly person you’re talking to may not be a person at all. It may be a Bot.

As if the world of online chat isn’t dicey enough, we are about to come face to face with talking computers.

The first will be Dusty the SpokesBot. Black SunInteractive ( has created SpokesBots that go into chat rooms and spread the good word of their masters. And you thought it was bad walking by the fragrance counters in a department store.

The first of these cyber robots is Dusty, the Black & Decker Corp. Dustbuster ( that will hit the Internet’s 3-D chat rooms any time now. Like other SpokesBots that will follow, Dusty shows up on users’ screens as just another avatar, a cartoonish character representing users set among elaborate backgrounds.

These chat areas have become enormously popular since Worlds Chat ( first hit the scene a couple of years ago. Sites such as Planet Direct ( and America Online’s Virtual Places ( offer software that allows just about anyone to create a virtual reality where users, and their avatars, can hang out.

Typically, users wander around the virtual worlds, look at the scenery and check out the other avatars. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Obviously, a white Dustbuster with big blue eyes is going to get some attention. Wander close enough and Dusty wastes no time in starting the conversation.

“Hi, I’m Dusty, the Black & Decker Dustbuster. Ask me about my features or just ask me a question,” is its standard opening line. Dusty even has a bit of attitude.

Question: How do you recharge?

“I recharge in my base so I’m always ready (unlike your online service).”

The programming wizardry is in making the bot smart enough to figure out what the question is and picking the right canned response. It’s an ingenious idea that seems destined to be used for insidious means. Black Sun officials have talked about how great it would be to target a SpokesBot to the nature of a chat room. They offer the example of Dusty visiting a room talking about allergies and touting his features to clean up dusty homes.

Call me cynical (you wouldn’t be the first), but I see a dark side to this. It’s bad enough now checking e-mail and wading through the sea of unsolicited junk.

I’m not against advertising to support the cost of online services, but there’s a fundamental difference between an ad in one corner of the screen and some maniacal automaton that could follow me like a puppy dog spouting commercials.

It’s only a matter of time until every sleazy marketer seizes on this idea. Then we’ll have to hack our way through chat rooms searching for real people. Taking the next step, these bots could easily wander around recording everything you say in a chat room, along with your e-mail address and build a profile about your likes and dislikes.

Imagine the surprise of getting e-mail that notes you recently mentioned in a chat room that your washing machine was acting up. It just so happens that Willy the WasherBot knows about a great deal down at Nick and Dent’s Appliances.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t see a new form of discrimination emerge in cyberspace: “No bots allowed!” Of course, that will only motivate bot programmers to make their creations more and more lifelike.

You know, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Yeah. A few years from now, maybe I’ll knock off early and let my ToddBot write the column.


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