Robert Hoffer today kicked off MobileBeat 2016 with a strong call to action: “If you’re going to make bots today, give them personality. Brands have a soul, and their bots should have a soul too.”

Hoffer is known as “the Botfather” for his pioneering chatbot SmarterChild, which he helped create 16 years ago. SmarterChild was an instant messaging bot available on AOL and used by 30 million people. At its peak the bot accounted for 5 percent of all AIM traffic, handling hundreds of millions of messages a day. In 2007, Microsoft acquired SmarterChild for $46 million, but it eventually went the way of Clippy and Zune.

Hoffer attributes SmarterChild’s success to its ability to interact with users in an authentic fashion. “Personality was our hook,” he said. For instance, if someone swore at SmarterChild, it would force them to apologize before it would resume the conversation. Hoffer got laughs by admitting, “Yes, many people asked [his bot] to have sex.”

Hoffer previously argued in a guest column on VentureBeat that the lessons of SmarterChild are being ignored by many creators of bots and intelligent assistants. He has urged the bot community to be mindful of four rules:

  1. Texting offers powerful, concise communication.
  2. No download should be needed.
  3. Memory for bots is critical; they must remember their users’ likes, dislikes, and previous conversations.
  4. Bots need personality.

Hoffer closed by remarking how large the bot community has grown since the launch of SmarterChild in 2000. He compared the “maybe two people” who might have attended a bot event then to today’s standing-room-only crowd. “Me?” he said with aw-shucks humility. “I’m just a proud father.”

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