Five months after I moved to New York City to pursue a career in writing, I was offered a part-time job composing the dialogue for a chatbot. Called “bots” for short, these are software programs that talk back, answering customer-service questions or performing simple tasks within texting applications or online pop-up windows. In the contract’s phrasing, I would “design” the bot’s “personality.” The office was lit by fluorescent rods, and the windows opened onto walls of brick. As I researched models—Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa—I found myself applying a feminist critique to the personalities I encountered. They were demure, or disturbingly flirty. The design of these helpers implied an odd nostalgia for the all-female secretarial pool. I decided that the bot I wrote would call itself “it,” not “she,” in keeping with its identity as inanimate technology, and that it would convey characteristics beyond a slavish deference to society’s hierarchies. I wanted to equip it with dignity. One obstacle to my bot’s liberation seemed insurmountable. Because it responded automatically, as bots do, it was obligated to answer every question put to it. As a conversationalist, it could not ever remain silent or disengage from the conversation, as humans occasionally choose to do.
So I was intrigued when I heard of an unusually mulish system of machinery named Amme, the elusive subject of a beguiling small book, The Amme Talks, published this summer by Triple Canopy. While my bot existed only through speech bubbles, Amme was idiosyncratically corporeal. Created in 1992 by the German artist Peter Dittmer, Amme operated on and off through 2007. Ten years afterward, “the work has been somewhat forgotten,” Dittmer wrote to me recently. “It is also large and expensive to build.” The latest model, Amme 5, comprises six sleek tables shaped like dominos, each equipped with two monitors, a keyboard, and, at the far end, a tall transparent box containing a glass of milk. Between these vitrines drove a robotic arm that terminated in pincers, like a crab’s. At one end of the setup hunkered a console stocked with a tank of milk. While Amme had a chatbot component, replying to humans’ queries in their language, “she” could also effect movements in the physical realm. (Amme’s name is a feminine noun in German, meaning “wet nurse,” and the gender has been carried over.) Using the arm she could spill one of those milk glasses, or not. The unpredictability of this gesture, governed by rules inscrutable to the human spectator, gave the impression that the system possessed the power of choice. At other times, Amme “urinated,” by spilling water rather than milk, or “bathed” the onlooker by causing water to squirt onto the box wall. She occasionally displayed images or played sounds such as this voice-over, in German: “Foxes are like fat.” I found myself enticed by the thought of a talking machine that put into play games of its own.