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Talking Heads

Keeping on top of tech.

Can a "talking" robot make your Web site friendlier and more useful? You bet. And that's just the thing San Francisco-based software company Neuromedia is recommending. It has commercialized a program for Web sites that utilizes "chatterbots," talking robots that appear to understand and respond intelligently to questions typed in free-form text.

In fact, chatterbots are no more intelligent than a potato. They're just cleverly programmed to recognize certain word patterns and then respond with scripted answers.

Although the technology has been around for three decades or so, only computer programmers had the level of expertise to utilize them effectively. But Neuromedia has made it easy for even nonexperts to develop chatterbots and "teach" them how to respond to typical questions, such as "Where is the catalog?" and "What is the price of the green model?"

Until now, complex Web sites often used text-search programs to help visitors find specific information; people still ended up searching through long lists before getting what they needed, however. Chatterbots can engage visitors in a dialogue, which quickly narrows their searches. With Neuromedia's program, you can have a chatterbot up and running in about a month, and it can be refined over time to answer additional questions. The price: $339 for the basic software. For a demonstration, check out http://www.neurostudios.com For more on bot technology in general, head to http://www.botspot.com

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