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Paedo-stalking ChatNannies – fact or fiction?

Readers sceptical, but creator sure of plaudits

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Our story last week reporting software technology supposedly capable of detecting paedophile-grooming behaviour on the Internet has provoked a sceptical backlash from readers.

The capabilities of ChatNannies software outlined in an article in last week's New Scientist and as reported by El Reg simply beggar belief, readers charge.

However the man behind the technology - Jim Wightman - is standing by his claims that he has developed the "most technologically advanced AI [Artificial Intelligence] construct ever conceived and built". He said he is willing to set up chat sessions with researchers seeking to test if his ChatNannies software can pass for a real human in chat room situations.

Reg readers - who believe there is no such thing as a Turing-test-passing-paedo-stalking-chatbot - dispute Wightman's claims for the technology.

Reader Scott summed up the general feeling expressed through our postbag: "It seems the previously unknown Jim Wightman has beaten the world's leading academic researchers and won the Turing prize. Which only goes to prove, one mention of the word paedophile and all journalistic critical faculties are suspended. I wonder what tricks Chris Morris is up to these days?"

British satirist Chris Morris won an award for a TV programme in which he mocked paedophilia panic. Wightman's claims are equally fantastic, according to reader Dave Korn:

"How on earth did you manage to swallow this obvious and blatant hoax? This is snake-oil, vapourware, con-artistry, utter fiction, and it should be obvious to anyone at an instant's glance.

"Are you really able to believe that this guy sitting at home with his PC has managed to produce AI software that is decades in advance of anything that has been produced by teams of researchers in either academia or industry? And that this program is not only many years ahead of the state-of-the-art in language comprehension, but is also so much incredibly simpler than anything else that he can run 25,000 instances of it on a single machine?"

ChatNannies runs on four Dell PowerEdge Servers running Win 2003, each of which is running 25,000 sessions, according to the people behind the project, husband and wife team Jim and Eleanor Wightman

Chat back

Jim and Eleanor Wightman told us that they never sought the publicity for ChatNannies that arose out of the original New Scientist article. They expected people to question their claims, but not for the issue to get as personal as it has with journalists and academics phoning them up at home to accuse them of been charlatans, or worse.

Jim Wightman said that many might expect significant advances in artificial intelligence to come out of academia, not the part-time project of a single developer. He understands that people may be sceptical but says he is prepared to prove his critics wrong. Wightman is "confident" that his software will be awarded the annual Loebner Prize for advances in artificial intelligence software this August.

Wightman is trying to get in touch with some of the AI Lab boffins at MIT with plan to source code for his ChatNannies software to them or other academics after the prize is decided. He says he doesn't want to sell his technology, and all he wants from ChatNannies is for his technology and, the portal behind it, to pay for themselves.

The ChatNannies site is covered with appeals for sponsorship, donations, corporate involvement and advertising. Wightman also attempted to make money by auctioning a chat session on eBay.

The auction pitch states: "Having been building the ChatNannies technology for almost two years, and having funded development ourselves, our financial situation is not pretty. In four months we have gone from a two-car family with secure income to having one car repossessed and the other having to be sold to make the mortgage payments. We also have a repossession order hanging over our house, so we must pay the mortgage this month (by the end of THIS month) else repossession proceedings will begin. Which will be the end of the ChatNannies dream, and the end of the potential applications we have planned for the AI technology."

Critics say ChatNannies is using the bogeyman of child abuse to persuade people to hand over money to the project, an accusation which Wightman is keen to rebuff.

He says he didn't take any money from the person who won the auction with a bid of $20.50, so the auction actually cost him dosh. "The auction was a desperate measure," he said.

So, what's the business structure behind ChatNannies and how did the Wightmans allow their slide into such dire straits?

Wightman said ChatNannies has no business structure to speak of and repeated that all he is looking for is money to pay for additional servers and bandwidth costs to "keep the ChatNannies dream alive" and keep his own head above water. ®

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