Sensing that I don’t quite know how to proceed, my dad hands me a piece of notepaper marked with a skeletal outline in his handwriting.It consists of just a few broad headings: “Family History.” “Family.” “Education.” “Career.” “Extracurricular.”“So …“You are always going to be with me.” My dad, whose sense of humor has survived a summer of intensive cancer treatments, looks touched but can’t resist letting some of the air out of the moment. When I have the recordings professionally transcribed, they will fill 203 single-spaced pages with 12-point Palatino type.
But the game only lasts until a player navigates to the front door of the mansion—less than a minute of play.
Decades go by, and I prove better suited to journalism than programming.
As my audio recorder runs, he describes how he used to explore caves when he was growing up; how he took a job during college loading ice blocks into railroad boxcars.
How he fell in love with my mother, became a sports announcer, a singer, and a successful lawyer.
Then, a little grandly, I pronounce my father’s name: “John James Vlahos.”“Esquire,” a second voice on the recording chimes in, and this one word—delivered as a winking parody of lawyerly pomposity—immediately puts me more at ease. We are sitting across from each other in my parents’ bedroom, him in a rose-colored armchair and me in a desk chair.
My tone is cheerful, but a catch in my throat betrays how nervous I am.On a warm, clear afternoon in the Berkeley hills, we sit outside on the patio.My brother entertains us with his favorite memories of my dad’s quirks. “I will always look up to you tremendously,” he says, his eyes welling up.The disease has metastasized widely throughout his body, including his bones, liver, and brain.It is going to kill him, probably in a matter of months. This will be the first of more than a dozen sessions, each lasting an hour or more.He regarded Eliza as little more than a parlor trick (she is one of those therapists who mainly just echoes your own thoughts back to you), and he was appalled by how easily people were taken in by the illusion of sentience.“What I had not realized,” he wrote, “is that extremely short exposures to a relatively simple computer program could induce powerful delusional thinking in quite normal people.”At age 11, I am one of those people.And where Eliza’s natural-language processing abilities were crude at best, Barbie’s powers rest on vast recent advances in machine learning, voice recognition, and processing power.Plus Barbie—like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and other products in the “conversational computing” boom—can actually speak out loud in a voice that sounds human.bot that, on its first day in the wild, has 6 million conversations).At one point the company’s CEO, Oren Jacob, a former chief technology officer at Pixar, tells me that Pull String’s ambitions are not limited to entertainment.