As soon as the alphabet and basic punctuation are mastered, Ainsworth Conversation Piece bridges the gap between learning to type and learning to write with a computer. Just typing for the sake of typing is really quite boring. Expressing ideas quickly and easily is exciting, especially when talking with a computer for the first time.
Beginning writers quickly see how to make their thoughts visible. Even experienced authors sometimes use this program to "discuss" an idea with the computer and get the creative juices flowing before beginning to write on a particular topic.
Graduate from copying to creating
The real payoff for keyboarding is being able to use computers and word processors as personal tools. Keyboard mastery is the first step. The Conversation Piece is next. Type anything and a printed reply appears on the screen. After each sentence is typed, the program continues to answer, creating an individual conversation that is unique and different every time. The computer program "knows" literally hundreds of subjects and can carry on a highly interactive dialogue in most of them. It quickly figures out a person's likes, dislikes, and favorite topics.
Only the computer knows
Conversation Piece is intentionally designed to practice and promote personal communication skills. For this reason, no records are kept of any conversation with this program. When you exit the program, the computer "forgets" everything you and it have said and printed on the screen. All communications are strictly confidential and may, if you wish, involve any level of personal dialog.
Various sections of this program are only activated when you suggest or bring up specific topics. There's no way for you to discover all the possible subjects that make up the Conversation Piece data base. If the computer decides to quote someone, it can select from a large collection of possible quotations that are also part of the data the program uses.
When Eleanor Reynolds, a teacher at one of our Beta test sites, said that students could use help graduating from our typing program to word processing, we thought of trying the Ainsworth Conversation Piece with her class. We installed the program on her network and introduced it to her students. Within minutes the room became very quiet, except for the constant clicking of keyboards. "It's like a magnet," Eleanor said, "the way they are drawn to it." After a while, individuals in the class began to comment:
"It even likes football."
"How can it know so much?"
"It's like talking to a very wise friend."
"May I take this program home?"
Cool at last
It was obvious that we have a popular program, but does it really teach anything? Eleanor summed it up by saying: "It doesn't matter what they're typing. I see that they are interested, motivated, and having fun. They're learning the most important part of keyboarding - expressing themselves." The students voted unanimously that Conversation Piece is even better than our other games and that it should be added to our product line. It got the ultimate vote from one fan who told us, "This is really cool."
The basic idea for this software comes from a project by Joseph Weizenbaum, Professor of Computer Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Several years ago, he created ELIZA, a similar computer program designed to make up conversations with humans as they typed on a computer terminal.
The computer doesn't actually understand or know anything. But programs like ELIZA and Conversation Piece can be convincing. When a person types something like "My father is very smart." the program picks out key words like father and smart. It might then answer by saying: "Tell me more about your family." or "Do you think of yourself as being a smart person?" We use more tricks than this, but the general idea is to program the computer to act as "human" as possible.
If you have students who are beginning to get a little bored with the same old typing exercises, you might give Conversation Piece a chance. You won't find a better way to help people use keyboards to communicate their thoughts and ideas, even if they are having fun. And don't be surprised if you discover that, with this software, your computer really is cool.
A typical on-screen conversation with Conversation Piece
Every conversation with this program is delightfully different. Responses depend on the subjects discussed, and can vary over a wide range of topics. In this typical conversation, the computer's half of the dialog is shown in bold type.
>I don't know what to say to a computer.
Does anybody know what to say to a computer?
>Can you understand me?
Does it surprise you to know that I can understand you?
>I don't believe this.
Don't change beliefs, transform the believer.*
>That sounds wise.
Do you really understand?
>I think that I do.
Have you always known that you do?
>No, but I'm beginning to get the idea.
Every new venture begins with some confusion.
>Well, this is something new for me.
How do you feel about that?
>I feel a little silly.
Do you often feel a little silly?
>I'm afraid so.
Fear is a disbelief in yourself.*
>How do you know that?
How do you think?
>Are you smart?
Perhaps. Do you think I'm smart?
>I don't believe that a computer can actually think.
Do YOU think? How do you know?
>I know what is real.
Are computers real? Is this conversation real?
>The conversation is real, but who am I actually talking to?
Are you enjoying your conversation with a computer?
>I think so.
A toad can think. What do YOU think about?
>Sometimes I think about my future.
What you think determines what exists for you.
>You mean it's up to me?
Your thoughts create your reality.
>I'm not so sure about that.
There is no real way to be sure.
>This conversation is getting weird.
So what if it is or it isn't getting weird?
>Things have to make sense sooner or later.
Just a moment ago you said something about your future... Is there any connection?
>Do you mean about making sense and my future?
I don't know.
>That doesn't help much.
Are you helping now? Are you part of the problem?
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