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Eliza’s Astriconversations


Astricon in DC a couple of weeks ago was my first trade show as an exhibitor, and I had a fabulous time. John Todd, Digium’s Asterisk Open Source Community Director invited me to attend and show off Eliza, my video chatterbot. The conference took place at the gargantuan Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in the altogether bizarre and otherworldly National Harbor development on the banks of the Potomac.

My table was in the little open-source corner of the hall, tucked between some very fancy commercial exhibitors and the constantly rotating cornucopia of caffeinated beverages and high-calorie snacks. Eliza was set up between Astlinux, a custom Linux distribution centered around Asterisk, and the rowdy Atlanta Asterisk Users Group. I was also within spitting distance of the OpenBTS project (roll your own GSM cell tower), of which I’m a big fan, and Areski Belaid, a developer with a finger in numerous telephony pies, including Star2Billing, which essentially allows anyone to become a long-distance phone company. Really interesting stuff.


The most surprising thing about the whole experience, other than the incredible amounts of cookies and sweets, was the communityness of the Asterisk community. Everyone seemed to know everyone, most people over a certain age were way into ham radio, there was nary a GUI in sight, and everyone seemed genuinely interested in everyone else’s projects, including mine.

I spoke for nearly an hour to Tim Panton from PhoneFromHere, a company that integrates voice and chat services into existing websites so businesses can interact directly with their customers over the web. He suggested I cut Flash out of Eliza by using HTTP Live Streaming, which also made me realize that I might also be able to ditch the socket server and use HTML5 web sockets!

Mark Spencer, the boffin responsible for Asterisk, stopped by and seemed genuinely pleased to see that a couple of years on, ITPers are still playing with his baby, making it contort in unexpected ways.

The folks at LumenVox (speech recognition) and GM Voices (speech synthesis and lightning-turnaround voice recording) generously offered to help robustify Eliza for her next iteration.

Also enthusiastic were Jason Goecke and Ben Klang, who are the principal movers behind the Ruby Adhearsion framework which reskins Asterisk in a slick modern web way and also involved with Tropo, by far the best cloud-hosted Asterisk service I’ve seen—write scripts in a variety of languages, host them yourself or on their servers and debug them through a web interface, take advantage of the built-in speech recognition system, seamlessly integrate with AGI, and best of all it’s all free for development, pay only when you’re looking to cash in! They turned me onto this interactive phone/video piece, which got me thinking.


For her next iteration, Eliza’s going to be on the web, hopefully in gloriously standards-compliant HTML5. Instead of canned conversations, she’ll rely on silence detection and Markov chains to generate much more dynamic conversations. The GM Voices people told me that they often record vocabularies—phrases in a variety of intonations so that you can do text to speech with real voices rather than those slightly Scandinavian sounding canned computer voices. I’ll be posting my progress soon.


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