18 March 2005

Goodbye to "A.N.A.C.A.O.N.A"

A majority of the CAC Editors recently voted to terminate a robot. That robot was named "A.N.A.C.A.O.N.A." (Anything About the Aboriginal Caribbean from an Online Networked Assistant). The experiment lasted just over two years and while at first there seemed to be, at best, mixed results, eventually it became apparent that the project was a failure on many counts. The robot, made available via Pandorabots, using AIML software, would routinely fail to follow the simple context of a conversation and would thus lead users astray. In many cases, the robot inadvertently offended users even when its knowledge base should have enabled it to give a correct answer. For example, if asked "how many" indigenous descendants were living in Cuba, it would answer something to the effect of "none as far as I know". In fact, as the programmer, all I could train the robot to know was that there are indeed indigenous descendants in Cuba, but not how many. The appearance and the name of the robot also disturbed a number of users, who in most cases simply refused to understand that the resource was made available to us for free, but under severe limitations. In addition, the robot seemed to attract an inordinate amount of sexual attention (what is so erotic about a piece of talking software is itself intriguing), with conversations often degenerating into frustration and aggression--hardly the aims that the Caribbean Amerindian Centrelink would wish to pursue. Meant to serve as a more visually engaging, interactive and talking version of a FAQ list, especially one that might appeal to young children, it instead became the vehicle for childish behavior. As a more modern means of paying tribute to, and extending the memory of, the historical Anacaona (about whom the CAC continues to maintain a list of resources), the robot achieved the opposite effect of our good intentions: several criticized the tawdry and insensitive manner that the robot seemingly stood for the historical figure. Some saw this as a cartoonish, misleading, misrepresentation of an historical figure who is revered by many of today's Tainos. Having reviewed very many conversation logs, we inevitably came to the conclusion that our purposes could be better served by other means. To the many people who were disappointed, disillusioned, or worse yet, offended by this experiment, I offer my sincerest apologies.

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