Everyone born south of the millennium remembers the release of Furby. Fewer people remember the early advancements in chatbot creation that the 90s brought. But how do these two things relate?
Furbies did more than saturate pop culture and shop shelves. They introduced the wider population to friendly chatbots with extra trimmings – artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).
Here, we explain just how influential the success of Furby was to the chatbot timeline. How could a children’s toy have contributed to the widescale use of chatbots we see today?
Setting the scene
Chatbots are software programs that interact with users through conversation. Nowadays, chatbots are commonly accessed through web interfaces such as live chat software to aid with customer service, but this wasn’t always the case.
The chatbot timeline begins with ELIZA in 1964, a tongue-in-cheek simulation of a therapist in bot form. Around the same time, AI was beginning to find its first (shaky) feet in the form of Shakey the Robot.
Then, in 1995, the Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity (A.L.I.C.E) was launched. This chatbot was one of the first to display natural language processing or NLP, and an early form of artificial intelligence. Alice won the Loebner Prize for the most human-like computer program, an annual contest that had been launched only five years earlier.
By the mid-90s, chatbots were in the early stages of development. They were young, new, and exciting. But no chatbot gained the level of interest and welcome that Furby did.
The release of the Furby is hailed as the first successful attempt at the production and sale of a domestic robot. The furry automated pet was invented by David Hampton and Caleb Chuang. Little did they know, Furby would be a revolutionary toy in the chatbot timeline.
The cute robot for kids was released in time for Christmas in 1998 and over 40 million sold in the first three years. The hype around the chattering toys caused near-riots at shops, with behaviour akin to the flux of Black Friday shoppers. When retail suppliers ran out of Furbies, parents looked online, some paying three times the original price for the hit toy.
Children everywhere wanted to interact with the Furby and chat with their smart, adorable new playmate. It may have been a fluffy owl-like creature, but it was capable of responding to, and ‘learning’ language.
Why Furbies get a spot on the chatbot timeline
Furbies displayed a fake intelligence by assimilating language. They adopted English speech over time, and used less of their native tongue, ‘Furbish’. (Almost as a human would learn language.)
Like the chatbots being created elsewhere, the Furby was capable of growing more intelligent after regular data input in the form of human speech. It even mimicked the same goal as its digital chatbot contemporaries – to seem real.
Furby was a big hit because it, on purpose, was made to let you believe it was alive. – Caleb Chuang
Despite these similarities, Furbies were not actually chatbots when they were released in 1998. However, their chatter and language use gave the illusion of conversation, and they were an automated friend that children really could chat to.
It might not have been their original purpose, but Furbies helped accelerate the chatbot timeline. They introduced the mass population to the concept of chatting with robots, and their popularity paved the way for chatbots to enter homes and integrate with human life.
Furby’s further additions to the chatbot timeline
Furby also raised the profile of machine learning and natural language processing – two key elements that have benefited chatbots over the years. Even though Furbies weren't truly ‘learning’, they sparked the AI imaginations of many.
By 2005, Furbies had evolved to be capable of voice recognition and simple NLP. Furby already had a footing in homes, and when it was released with voice recognition it was easy to see how chatbot-like technology could become an everyday facet of communication. Again, this was another catalyst to the chatbot timeline.
The unassuming little toy had already shown how chatting with a robot could be fun and welcome. Now it was showcasing improvements in the technology, as well as introducing AI to the general population.
The impact of AI
Part of the charm of Furbies was this apparent AI. The novelty of their early 'AI', though a simple semblance, gave the development of NLP technology (like chatbots) unprecedented attention in the consumer market. Over the past decade, Furbies have continued to serve as a link between AI chatbot technology, and daily life.
Nowadays, chatbots aren’t often given a physical form like Furby. But they are smarter, and in more diverse use. What’s more, they’re increasingly infused with AI to become smarter by the day. Some, like the Furby, are starting to be given branded identities and characteristics.
And this isn’t the only parallel on the chatbot timeline and the Furby timeline. Furby continues to mirror chatbot advancements, and in 2012, was also given the AI ability to develop a personality based on the way it is treated.
Furbies have drifted on and off the shelves of toy shops and online markets for a decade since their release in 1998. They’ve grown to resemble chatbot creation more and more, with voice recognition added in 2005, and the ability to develop personalities in the 2012 release.
We aren’t saying that without Furbies, chatbots wouldn’t exist today – their development started long before the fuzzy robot pet (briefly) hit the shelves in time for Christmas 1998.
But without the influence that Furby generated, chatbots could well not be as accepted or advanced as they are today. If it weren’t for the Mogwai-esque face that eased us into the dawn of the chatbots, would we have been so ready to let AI into our homes and lives?