‘Talk to Me’


James Vlahos, Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pages, $28. When his father was told he had cancer, James Vlahos decided to program a chatbot — which he named “Dadbot” — with his father’s life stories, jokes and some of his mannerisms and personality quirks. Vlahos interviews his father about his childhood, family memories, school, work and favorite sports teams. As his father’s health fails, the Dadbot gets better and better. Vlahos knows the Dadbot “will no doubt be a paltry low-resolution representation of the flesh-and-blood man,” but he’s still reasonably certain he can teach it to mimic his father’s charm and humor. Dadbot is tangential to most of “Talk to Me: How Voice Computing Will Transform the Way We Live,” deep history of the technology that made such a robot father possible, how we came to be on the cusp of truly conversational, natural-language technology that can hear and understand us — and talk back. Vlahos covers the corporate histories of how Google and Apple developed their voice assistants. All of this is well researched and reported, written by someone with a deep understanding of the tech itself. But the shadow of the Dadbot looms throughout. The history of Eliza, the world’s first chatbot, who worked as a rudimentary stand-in psychotherapist; and the career path of the magic-obsessed teenager who grew up to become one of the programmers who helped create Apple’s Siri, are fascinating narratives. But they pale when compared with the complex psychological questions introduced by the Dadbot.