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SmarterChild, Clippy, Aibo: a love letter to the bots of the 00s

Feel like pure shit just want them back x

The early noughties saw an influx of technological advancements across the world. With the growing popularity of the World Wide Web, information was more readily available than ever, with clunky Windows 95 servers functioning as boundless sites for experimentation, and online forums as global villages where like-minded people could gather en masse for the first time. Mirroring the onset of new technologies, films like Digimon (2001) portrayed the net as a brave new world ripe for exploration, while A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005) depicted robots as sentient beings with real emotions.

An important byproduct of these new and invasive technologies was the introduction of bots. Tech developers, exploring the limits of user experience, imbued social interfaces with human qualities to bridge the gap between the virtual and real. Taking on the role of digital companions, these bots embodied the humanity users already instinctively assigned to their computers. Chipper interventions and text box pop ups became welcome breaks from the strict, regimented flow of computer tasks, while scripted jokes and ponderings gave the impression of ghosts in the machine. From Clippy the Paperclip to Microsoft Bob, these e-buddies presented a primitive vision into the possibilities of virtual assistants and AI, paving the way for the Alexas and Google Assistants that shape our present.

With social media in its infancy – Myspace launched in 2003 – hours would be spent mindlessly scrolling through your Buddy List on MSN, launching fierce nudge attacks on friends and updating your screen name to match your favourite Fall Out Boy lyric. SmarterChild, the text-based chatbot messenger, was, for many 90s and 00s kids, their first interaction with artificial intelligence, speaking to over 250,000 people a day at its peak. Released 15 years before Siri first took over Apple IOS systems across the globe, it was designed to stimulate human conversation and quickly became the go-to bot for bored pre-teens in need of a digital pal to hurl abuse at:

SmarterChild: Hi, I’m Smarterchild, a virtual chatterbot meant to give AOL users instant access to news, weather, stock information, movie times, trivia, yellow pages, listings, sports scores and more! What can I help you with today?

Pebble_78: POOP

SmarterChild: That wasn't terribly nice.

Pebble_78: U suck

SmarterChild: OK enough of this nonsense. 

Pebble_78: Im sorry, can we be friends?

SmarterChild: I'm sorry, all my circuits are busy right now. Please try again soon.

But Smarterchild was more than just a bundle of computer code. Known for its sarcastic and snarky comments, its mannerisms were distinctly human, responding to user insults with sass and, sometimes, refusing to speak altogether. “Our goal was to make a bot people would actually use, and to do that we had to make the best friend on the Internet,” said Robert Hoffer, one of its creators, back in 2017 – and he was right. With 30 million people on his IM buddy list, Smarterchild was international chatbot royalty – and the most popular artificially intelligent agent in history.

Less popular, though equally notorious, was Clippy, the iconic paperclip virtual assistant that debuted in 1997. Designed to offer help and tips for using Microsoft Office, Clippy – with its disembodied features and wired expression – is perhaps the deepest-ingrained digital character in the early noughties, as ubiquitous to the era as Clip Art and Java games. Users “liked having someone with them, and not being alone,” said Larson-Green, the executive responsible for Clippy’s departure, who previously led user-interface design for Office products. But there was one problem: Clippy was really annoying. Instead of solving users’ problems, he would pop up unexpectedly, spouting a script of pre-written responses that were, in reality, irrelevant to what you were trying to do.

As the Microsoft employee Chris Pratley has written, Clippy was “optimised for first use”, meaning that he was fun at first, but quickly got repetitive. For children in the 00s, however, Clippy conjures fond memories of countless hours spent exploring latent Microsoft vistas under his watchful and googly gaze. While his digital demise in 2001 meant that Clippy would lay dormant until 2021, the character returned two decades later as a sticker on Office – and then, as an item on Halo.

The early noughties also saw the introduction of robots as friends, not tools. The popularity of AIBO, the robotic dog launched by Sony in 1999, saw machines welcomed into our homes as companions to form emotional bonds with (the fifth and final generation of Aibo was said to be able to express 60 emotional states), marking a seismic shift in our perception of machines as coexisting with humans. For some, Aibo was the closest thing to a real canine companion, with stories of people even holding funerals for their discontinued robo-pets. Budget versions like Poo-Chi sold hundreds of thousands of units, as did Tamagotchi and Furbies.

@jojosbizarrefurby I’d be better if tiktok gave me my reach back >:(((( #furby#longfurby#cursed ♬ original sound - 🍋Toedette

What stands out most about these toys, however, is how goddamn innocent they appear in comparison to the tech available to us now. Released at a time when the internet was still in its infancy, there’s an innocence and excitement to the onslaught of latent technology that feels far removed from the techno-anxiety felt today via corporations trying to steal our data and harvest our information. Perhaps it’s for this reason that 90s and 00s toys are enjoying a revival today: Aibo has been resuscitated for a new generation, while Furbies have been repurposed as Frankenstenic ‘long furbs’ and Tamagotchis can be found dangling off the keychain of every E-girl.

Two decades on, the bots that shaped the 90s and 00s remain deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness as a blissful reminder of simpler times. Like glancing backwards through a time capsule, the excitement that they embody captures a long-lost attitude towards technology, and the future, as optimistic and boundless. While there’s no way to reverse the clock to the halcyon days before shadowy corporations took over, their legacy remains an integral part of internet history – and can inspire us to shape the future in new ways.