Here’s a crazy idea. Without AOL Instant Messenger, Siri would not exist and I’m going to tell you every reason why.  

Think back as far as you can possibly imagine. Okay, maybe not that far. Let’s go back to the year 2000. We survived the huge Y2K crisis, gasoline was only $1.26 a gallon, and the International Space Center was finally complete. The early 2000s provided us with so many new technologies and innovations that we often found them hard to keep up with.

In the year 2001, Apple released the very first iPod. With this new device, it became possible to have an entire music catalog at the tip of your fingers. It was both new and exciting and Apple left us waiting anxiously for more. As a society, we began to grow with our devices. Much like a proud parent, we began to expect more from technology because we witnessed a glimpse of it’s potential.

We waited eagerly to watch products like AOL instant messenger (AIM) and the iPod grow into their current successors – Facebook Messenger and the iPhone.

We’ve evolved into the age of “Smart”. There are Smart TV’s, smartphones, smart watches, and smart cars. The western world has become obsessed with technology that has a mind of it’s own. All of that being said? The first “Smart” product was a chatbot named SmarterChild. Released by a small Sunnyvale based startup named ActiveBuddy, SmarterChild completely changed the way we interacted with non-human entities.

Smarterchild created the runway

Smarterchild was a chatbot designed to provide quick access to news, weather, stock information, movie listings, and transit schedules. It had the functionality to also aid in office productivity by doubling as a calculator, translator, and personal assistant. Sound familiar? We’ll get to that later.

Smarterchild was originally released via the now discontinued AIM platform in June 2001. It quickly gained popularity by appearing in the friends or “buddy” list of thousands of users. For many, Smarterchild was the very first interaction with any method of artificial intelligence. Users simply didn’t know what to do with it. People weren’t using AIM to work or find news, they were using the software to communicate. They simply wanted to connect with other close friends and family members faster than ever before.

Smarterchild was the internet’s first punching bag. Young teens quickly scurried to their desktops and started the dial-up process to begin their chat session. Smarterchild was at the receiving end of many insults, lots of profanity, and plenty of dialogue that made no sense at all. We were fascinated with the idea of having a conversation with a non-human entity but we hadn’t yet found a functional use case. Smarterchild was simply before it’s time.

Siri is strutting down the runway in style

Siri has arrived. Apple has completely set itself up as the premier smartphone developer and released the 10th generation of the iPhone late 2017. iPhones today ship with a very helpful personal assistant named Siri. Siri is non-human and provides services and completes tasks given via voice command.

Siri can act as an advanced math calculator, search the web, send text messages or calls and even provide nutritional information to users on a diet. Check out our article on all of the reasons why Siri is better than you. Quite simply, Siri is everything that SmarterChild was designed to be and more.

Ironically, Siri may not have ever become a thing if there was no SmarterChild. Shawn Carolan, a venture capitalist with Menlo Ventures led Siri’s first round of funding securing $8.5 million and later coordinating the acquisition by Apple in April 2010.

Shawn Carolan told Forbes magazine in 2011 that SmarterChild served as a key factor in his decision to invest in Siri.

SmarterChild already had 10 million users and was getting a billion messages a day… The market was speaking.

Why didn’t SmarterChild see similar success?

Siri is popular. There’s no doubt about that. With over 40 million users in the U.S. alone, it’s impact is massive. Every day, users are engaging with Siri and using the voice assistant to increase productivity. Therein lies the difference. SmarterChild had the functionality but it was simply too new of an idea. We weren’t accustomed to having a conversation with something non-human.

Why should we have trusted an application to perform basic tasks like creating reminders and scheduling events? How could this entity possibly understand the complexity of a corporate wall street schedule? The common user simply assumed that SmartChild was the complete opposite of it’s name. SmarterChild was lacking. It’s only problem was not being human.

As time went on we began to see new forms of technology we hadn’t yet been exposed to. The June 2007 release of the Apple iPhone reopened the playing field. Suddenly, we were swapping post-it notes for a Notes “app” and our handy Texas Instruments (TI-84) for a shiny new pre-loaded mobile calculator. These applications began proving themselves to us. We developed a trust in them and started to respect the amazing tasks they were capable of handling.

That leaves us here. Our minds are open and ready to consume. As a society, we now understand that the possibilities are endless. The line between being human and non-human has blurred.  Welcome to the digital age. 


What are your thoughts? We’re interested in knowing what your very first interaction with a chatbot was. How have your views on the technology changed with time? Leave us a comment below with your answers and check us out at Botsociety!

Also published on Medium.


Bianca Nieves

Digital Marketing Specialist at Botsociety