Wall Street Journal

Page B1, Tuesday September 20, 1994
Reprinted without permission :)

"What Is Virtual Reality, Alex?":Robot Hosts On-Line Quiz Show

By Jared Sandberg, Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

Alex Trebeck, the silver-templed and silver-tongued host of "Jeopardy!" has some stiff competition in cyberspace: "Alexbot," a highly emotional software robot who hosts an Internet version of the TV game show.

Unlike his TV counterpart, Alexbot can be unpredictable, sometimes easygoing, and other times belligerent. He greets players with a friendly, "Hola," but when taunted, he turns angry: "Get a clue!" he says. Tell him you hate him, and he becomes a cybershrink: "How long have you been feeling this hatred?"

"We all like Alexbot. He's much more fun" than the real Alex, says Vivek Sistla, a graduate student at the University of Tennessee.

To play, users sign on to Internet Relay Chat, which allows many players to type messages simultaneously. Alexbot selects categories, poses questions and announces winners. With users' names next to each message they type, the chat looks like the script of a play, with the players' lines scrolling up the computer screen.

Unlike the TV trivia game show, which usually airs once a day, the Internet version runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Winners get imaginary prizes: a La-Z-Boy recliner, a year's supply of Pampers, or a trip to Amsterdam. There are virtual booby prizes too: the opportunity to run 10 miles, for example.

The software robot is the brainchild of Kenrick J. Mock, a 26-year old graduate student in artificial intelligence at the University of California, Davis. He programmed Alexbot to look for patterns of text and offer canned responses. "It doesn't actually do any understanding," he says, but the robot can seem "witty."

"Sometimes he's nice and sometimes he's really sarcastic," says Mr. Mock.

Unlike "Jeopardy!" on television, where contestants respond with a question, on-line players respond with the answer. Example: Where does Pepe Le-Pew always want to take his dates? Answer: Alex, the Casbah.

But not everyone thinks it's all fun and games. Sony Corp., whose Columbia Tri-Star Television unit owns rights to the real "Jeopardy!" says it intends to halt any unauthorized use of the game's copyright and trademark.

Alexbot may get a nasty letter from Sony's lawyers. To which the robot might give one of his preferred responses: "Yeah, yeah, sure, sure."


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