When Radiohead released Amnesiac on June 5, 2001, the album arrived with a mysterious online companion: Googly Minotaur.
The Where The Wild Things Are-like character was a goofier take on Stanley Donwood’s figure on Amnesiac’s cover, and he was friendly.
AOL Instant Messenger users could add the Googly Minotaur to their buddy list and chat with him like they would a friend or family member.
To mark the 15th anniversary of Googly Minotaur, employees and then-members of Capitol Records’ new media department shared their memories of the innovative bot—which today is merely one of Radiohead’s many forward-thinking, career-defining promotional gestures.“I could have sworn I saw a light coming on”Tim Kay and his brother-in-law, Robert Hoffer, were start-up vets who had worked together at a directory services company called Query Labs.
(In the ’90s, their company went head-to-head with Zip2, owned by future Pay Pal co-founder Elon Musk.) In January 2000, Kay and Hoffer hit on an idea for computer-based, instant-messaging-like technology that would answer questions posed by users. Let’s just hook up computers to it, and it can answer your questions.” I spent a few days doing an early prototype, which went really well. It did stock quotes and some other things like that.
Tim Kay (Active Buddy co-founder/chief technology officer): There were precursors to Twitter at the time, on SMS [short message service], and instant messaging was new, too. Robert Hoffer (Active Buddy co-founder): The idea of bots was not me. Artificially intelligent robots, or artificially intelligent computer personas, was ancient in the computer business. That’s how crazy the dot-com bubble was: We got $4 million in investment in two weeks’ or three weeks’ time.
As it turns out, the origin stories of Googly Minotaur (affectionately called “Googly” by those who worked on it) and its popular peer, Smarter Child, are inextricably linked.
Both bots had a deadpan, snarky sense of humor but tended to be genuinely helpful if users had questions.
That was no accident: The team at Active Buddy, the start-up behind both Googly Minotaur and Smarter Child, was deliberate about how the bots responded to and interacted with fans and meticulous about refining answers to queries.That human touch perhaps explains why both bots developed rabid cult followings.According to a 2003 New York Times article, 250,000 people were talking to Smarter Child every day when it was most popular.Fifteen years after Amnesiac’s release, Active Buddy’s work with bots and communication looks incredibly prescient.Apple’s Siri is the sporadically helpful robot buddy i Phone users love to hate, while Amazon Echo has its own built-in assistant-like voice persona called Alexa.And in April, Facebook launched bot development and implementation capabilities for Messenger—leading to things such as And Chill, which trades in Netflix-based movie recommendations.