Max the Conversational Agent

I found a very interesting study done with Max called “A Conversational Agent as Museum Guide – Design and Evaluation of a Real-World Application” by Stefan Kopp, Lars Gesellensetter, Nicole C. Krämer and Ipke Wachsmuth. Although the study was done more than 10 years ago, the results were very interesting and I think they’re still relevant today.

First of all, it’s intriguing to read how Max was designed and created. He was a human-like 3D character that appeared on a screen and had conversations with museum visitors. Visitors could communicate with him via a keyboard. This way speech recognition problems in a noisy museum were avoided, and it made sure that Max could only talk to one visitor at a time.

Max also displayed nonverbal behavior, including waving, smiling and other facial expressions. This behavior was linked to his “emotional system”. For instance, after repeated insults, Max would be in a very bad mood and leave the screen (to de-escalate rude visitor behavior).

Secondly, it’s interesting to see how people interacted with Max. All his conversations were recorded and analysed, and to me, the results are fascinating. People were very likely to use human-like conversation strategies, like greeting Max (57.6% of dialogs) and asking him small talk questions like “How are you?”. Visitors also said goodbye to Max when leaving 29.8% of the time, even though they could just walk away to end the conversation.

What I found very interesting is that people started testing the intelligence of the bot by asking questions, answering in a foreign language or giving obviously wrong answers, for instance saying their name is “Michael Jackson” or their age is “125”.

Also a lot of flaming was recorded, around 11% of all user input was abusive, insulting, pornographic or politically incorrect in nature. Max would get annoyed and leave the screen an average of 3 times a day.

I’ll take both these things into consideration when building my own historic voicebot.

Overall though, people treated Max like a person and tried to interact with him in a nice and human-like way, which is a good indication that visitors would be open to speaking with a historical person via voicebot.