Recent news stories have covered the announcement of ChatNannies, conversational robots designed to locate and lure pedophiles in Internet chat rooms. Uncritical articles were recently published by New Scientist, BBC News, News.com, the skeptically-minded The Register, and many other news outlets.
Cameron Marlow managed to secure an exclusive interview with one of the “Nanniebots,” where he posted a complete transcript and some brief analysis. To anyone who knows anything about chatterbots and the history of artificial intelligence, the transcript represents either a revolutionary leap in technology or it’s clearly a human behind the keyboard.
So I did a little Usenet research on Jim Wightman, the 30-year-old UK-based software developer behind ChatNannies. His background is mostly in .NET and VB development, but I couldn’t find references to any interest or experience in artificial intelligence or chat technologies. One thread from 2002 critically discusses Jim’s claims of developing his own private Usenet newsreader software, even though his headers revealed he was using another popular newsreader. In another thread from mid-2002, he claimed to be writing a book on .NET for Wrox Press, but there’s no reference to him on their site. Update: I can confirm that Wightman was telling the truth, and was contributing to a book about ASP.NET controls that was later abandoned by Wrox UK through no fault of his own.
In Cameron’s comments, Jim himself stated that he has some psychological problems. But a bit more worrisome are his postings in alt.revisionism, a newsgroup largely centered around Holocaust denial. Someone posting under the pseudonym “Deaths Head,” with the exact same headers and IP address as Jim, regularly argued that the Holocaust never occurred. In another thread, he posted a graphic death threat to another user. (I can’t prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that these aren’t spoofed headers, but it seems very unlikely. Compare Jim’s message headers in alt.revisionism with a message by “Deaths Head” in the same group a couple days before.) Update: Jim only posted in the group for two months. He maintains he was only playing Devil’s advocate, and that these aren’t strongly held beliefs.
These personal beliefs suggest a skewed view of the universe, perhaps one in which he’s able to unleash 100,000 cutting-edge robots to save the world from pedophiles. The ChatNannies’ official Downloads page says the downloadable
version of control panel for their chatbots will be available on April 2, conveniently one day after April Fool’s Day. So it’s either the prelude to an elaborate April Fool’s joke, an attempt at defrauding corporate sponsors and individuals of their money, or it’s the delusions of an arguably unstable person. Either way, the media bought it wholesale.
March 24, 2004: Things are getting interesting! In the comments on Cam’s site, Guardian UK science columnist Ben Goldacre mentions that Jim offered to give an in-person demonstration of the ChatNannies bot on an isolated, non-networked computer with an independent third-party observer. (I’m guessing Jim will conveniently schedule the demonstration just in time for April Fool’s Day.)
March 25, 2004: Ben Goldacre’s appropriately-titled “Bad Science” column covers the Nanniebots, and Jim Wightman’s attempts to avoid getting debunked. Essential reading. Also, a reader sent in pointers to several death threats that Jim made on Usenet, which are considerably more violent than the one I found. Read them here and here.
March 26, 2004: The Register and VNUnet both ran new articles about increased skepticism of the Wightmans’ continued claims. ChatNannies started a developers’ forum. And a commenter points to TivoMedia.org, another Jim Wightman project that appeared to be unfounded, unraveling in this long Tivo Community thread from April 2003.
March 31, 2004:
Shortly after midnight on April 1 in the UK, the ChatNannies.com site went offline. Never mind, it’s back.
April 2, 2004: In the “News” sidebar on the ChatNannies homepage, Jim Wightman announces he’s closing down the site in a week. Here’s the announcement, removed a couple minutes ago:
“Due to being treated like criminals for trying to help save children, we are closing the ChatNannies website at 00:00:00 GMT 11-04-2004. Many thanks to those of you who have shown your support…after this time however your Children are once again at Maximum risk from Paedophiles. You can thank, amongst others, Ben Goldacre from the Guardian and Barnardo’s in helping us reach this decision.”
April 5, 2004: The Guardian UK wrote a new article about the recent criticism from children’s charities. (Strangely, the article doesn’t refer to the bots at all.) Wightman posted a response. VNUnet posted a similar article.
The Chatnannies discussion forum is getting interesting, as well. Jim Wightman is posting actively there.
April 8, 2004: New Scientist removed the text of the original story, replacing it with a temporary retraction. “Serious doubts have been brought to our attention about this story. Consequently, we have removed it while we investigate its veracity.” Good! BBC News also removed their story
April 13, 2004: Charles Arthur, the technology editor of the Independent UK, wrote a good column about the net’s skepticism.
June 16, 2004: New Scientist followed up with an amusing story of Wightman’s attempt to demonstrate the ChatNannies bot from his home. He couldn’t reproduce any of the intelligent conversation originally demonstrated in his transcripts, and analysis of the transcripts shows word-for-word dialogue from the freely-available ALICE bot, including typos from the AIML database. Their conclusion (and mine): still a big, fat fake.
June 17, 2004: Andy Pryke, one of the three observers of the Nanniebots demo for New Scientist, wrote up his observations and posted transcripts of the chats. It’s clearly an ALICE bot.