To chat or not to chat? Shakespeare has the answer to your question

Ingrid Lunden

Chatbots are vying to become one of the cornerstones of the messaging world: using AI tools like natural language and machine learning, developers are hoping to tap into the popularity of chat apps as a medium of communication to explore new ways to help you get information, buy things, plan your life and more by letting you converse with intelligent computers instead of humans.

In the latest release, presented today at the Hackathon at TC Disrupt in San Francisco, a chatbot is hoping to drop some literary knowledge on the world and create a fun way of getting answers to your most pressing questions about life.

Get thee to a chatbot!

Shakespeare, as the bot is called, is a new messaging bot based on the works of the Bard of Avon. The developers have taken his poems and plays -- which are available open-source -- pulled out all of the most famous lines, and compiled them into a database. They then applied a natural language parser to index and understand the lines. Attaching them to different kinds of intent (for example, food-lunch-dish or here-place-hell), they have turned Shakespeare's lines into potential answers to questions.

The end result is an effective conversation that you can have with a bot that not only speaks with you, but speaks in Shakespeare lines:

Now is the chatbot of our discontent.

A lot of people find chatbots to be more than a little frustrating these days -- understandably so. Many of them don't work as well as you hope they would, and others just seem kind of pointless, AI for no aim that feels better than just using the service that it's trying to replace.

In that context, Shakespeare is more than a novelty play; it has an educational component to it, too. After each line, the reader can click on a link that takes you to the original text that it comes from.

Over time, Shakespeare could also be used for more than just William Shakespeare.

"I want to develop this further, definitely," said Krishna Srinivasan, who co-created the app with Rich Skrenta and Jorge Gonzalez. "Given more than 24 hours," -- it was built at the Hackathon, which started yesterday -- "I would add more famous personalities, like Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein and Gandhi, or other famous authors, or even people you know."

The idea of creating bots that are reminiscent of other people is something that has been explored before, such as this chatbot that a friend made as a memorial and memento of someone she loved who had passed away. Srinivasan is also interested and intrigued by this idea.

"Today's demo lifted famous quotes," he said, "but what if we could rephrase answers into new lines, but keep the sense of the original speaker?"

It's an ambitious and hard idea, Srinivasan admitted, but not one that is outside the scope of his and his co-hackers' abilities, with their collective experience covering engineering roles at various startups, Yahoo, Apple and IBM.

The three all worked together at Blekko, a search startup that was eventually acquired by IBM. Skrenta, who had been the founder of Blekko, now is a director at IBM in the Watson group. Srinivasan had been employee number two at Blekko after Skrenta, but then moved on to Apple, before returning to IBM post the acquisition to work with Skrenta again. Gonzalez stayed in touch with them, too, and now is the director of engineering at ClassPass.

Another fun fact: Skrenta was a winner at last year's Hackathon, with a navigation app called SafeRoute.

Here's the video of how Shakespeare works: